A recent report from a group of nonprofit organizations asks cities to leverage their contract powers and force better conditions for workers at materials recovery facilities.
The study – from GAIA, Partnership for Working Families, MassCOSH and National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, all of which are nongovernmental organizations – notes 17 workers died from accidents at MRFs from 2011 to 2013. The organizations also cite a notable U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finding: that the rate of nonfatal injury incidents at MRFs was 8.5 per 100 workers in 2012, a number higher than both the rate for all industries (3.5 per 100 workers) and the average rate for waste management and remediation services in general (5.1 per 100 workers).
Some of the groups behind the study advocate for labor unions.
The report states MRFs' reliance on temporary workers may account for part of the injury and fatality issue. "Among employers who use temporary labor, failure to properly train and orient workers who are new to the job, or have been brought on as temporary labor, is a common practice and serious concern," the report states.
Extreme instances of contamination also pose risks to those working the sort lines at facilities, the report indicates. Hypodermic needles, nails, sharp metal, hazardous chemicals and rotting animals are all items many workers must pull off belts after they've been improperly added to the recycling stream.
The report calls on municipalities to take action, offering recommendations including: Evaluate potential processing contractors based on health and safety criteria, prohibit the use of temporary workers, boost communication to residents to ensure cleaner source separation, reject mixed-waste processing proposals, require contractors to provide a written illness and injury prevention program, and create a system for municipal inspection.
"[Recycling] is about recovering resources for future generations and reducing the impacts of our consumption," the report states. "To fully live those values, however, we must consider the human impacts of our waste management system, and invest as much energy in improving recycling worker jobs as we do in raising diversion rates."