OPINION: Stephen Freeland, ESA policy advisor, discusses the waste industry’s efforts to improve health and safety in the sector.
The health and safety performance of the waste industry is rarely out the press these days, and unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. A report recently published by Environmental Services Association (ESA) recognises that while clearly more needs to be done to reduce accidents; there is nonetheless significant variation in health and safety performance between key sectors and organisations within the waste and resource management industry.
The ESA is the voice of the waste and resource management industry. Representing the UK’s leading waste management companies, our members turn waste into valuable resources whilst protecting human health and the environment.
Long before the current political and media interest in the industry’s accident record, ESA decided to make health and safety a key priority. Quite simply, health and safety was made a non-competitive issue among members of ESA’s board, while a dedicated health and safety committee was established to allow the sharing of best practice and the development of industry guidance. ESA has also been collecting accident data from its members for over 20 years, arguably producing the most robust data set in the industry. This is considerably more detailed than the headline data published by HSE and crucially, allows ESA to analyse accident causation and identify where these have occurred (i.e. accidents broken down by operational activity).
Our data has also allowed ESA to compare our sector’s performance with that of the wider industry, as published annually by HSE. In doing so, it has long since been clear that the rate of accident reduction achieved by ESA’s members has not been mirrored across the waste and resource management industry as a whole. In fact, ESA members have reduced RIDDOR reportable injuries by 78% since the launch of ESA’s Accident Reduction Charter in 2004. This Charter marked somewhat of a turning point, formalising ESA’s approach to accident reduction and committing our member companies to 10% year on year accident reduction targets.
Comparing ESA’s data with that made available by HSE from 2009/10 to 2014/15, shows that ESA Members reduced accidents by 52.3%, compared to a 23.3% reduction achieved by the wider waste industry over the same period. This difference is all the more significant when it is considered that ESA members are responsible for employing about a third of the total workforce that make up HSE’s (waste industry) statistics.
There is of course no getting away from the fact that the waste industry’s accident rate remains stubbornly higher than the all UK-industry average, and there is clearly much to be done to reduce accident rates further. However, it is perhaps worth noting that ESA’s accident reduction of 52.3% since 2009 compares favourably with the level of accident reductions achieved by other industrial sectors, surpassing that of the all UK-industry average (40.3%), and all other sectors with the exception of the quarrying and mining industry (57.7%).
Many companies and organisations are currently assessing the potential opportunities presented by the Circular Economy, and seeking to re-align corporate strategies accordingly. The aim of such should of course ensure that higher rates of waste recovery and recycling are twinned with high standards of health and safety. This is not without its challenges, as the industry moves beyond its traditional spheres of operations, adopting new working practices to maximise the value obtained from waste streams, whilst understanding the needs of other players in the wider supply chain. More materials will need to be diverted from landfill if the UK is to meet increasingly stringent recycling targets. The handling and sorting of materials that might otherwise have been disposed to landfill as residual waste, could well present a range of new hazards in the working environment that will firstly need to be identified and then reduced or managed.
Going forward, ESA will seek to maintain its position as an industry leader in health and safety, and remains committed to its accident reduction targets. Working with the Waste Industry Safety & Health (WISH) Forum (and SWITCH in Scotland) we aim to disseminate best practice and to help drive up standards across the board.