The National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), Arlington, Virginia, has a change in leadership. Dr. Darrell Smith was appointed as the association’s president and CEO in August. His background in the mining and chemical industries combined with his safety and environmental background and advocacy and lobbying experience have prepared him in his new role.
His appointment comes as the waste and recycling industry continues to rank as one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations.
In an interview with Waste Today, Smith shares how he plans to take his knowledge and experience with safety and collaboration in other industries and apply those lessons to the waste and recycling industry to help make it a safer occupation.
Waste Today (WT): Please tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to this point?
Darrell Smith (DS): I worked in various industries for 15 years, primarily as a safety and environmental person, but held a multitude of other roles as well prior to coming to Washington, D.C. And when my career started here, I was hired by the chemical industry for my technical background in safety and environment. I began being exposed to that advocacy and lobbying world and really found I enjoyed it quite a bit. I felt like I was able to make a difference, and I have gone from there. I have been employed by the mining and petroleum industries in D.C., and now I am in the waste industry, and I am very excited.
WT: How do you think your experience has prepared you for your role as president and CEO of the NWRA?
DS: One interesting thing about me is I came to D.C. from a nontraditional route. Most government affairs professionals start with their first job on Capitol Hill, maybe with an internship or paid position, but I think my industry background gives me a unique perspective that a lot of lobbyists don’t have. And I am now well-versed as well in the workings of public policymaking. I do enjoy understanding my industry members, and I have always been an industry advocate. I think I have a special view into the world they live in and the troubles they face, and I think that almost gives me an advantage sometimes.
WT: What are your goals for the association in your first year?
DS: I want to organize the association and increase efficiencies so that we are responding to our members and that we are putting out products that benefit the membership.
Next, I want to develop an effective and efficient advocacy program both at the local and national level. Not just government advocacy, but communications advocacy and public relations advocacy as well. I want NWRA to be the recognized voice of the industry. We already do have a major voice in the waste industry, and I want that only to increase, and I want us to be the spokesperson for the industry.
Next, I want to form valuable partnerships and bring synergy to our efforts.
WT: How will you build on the work that has been done in the area of safety?
DS: I am coming from the mining industry, and we had a rule in the mining industry that every talk should really start with safety, and I am going to try to start implementing that here at NWRA and try to do that within the industry.
The mining industry is very good with safety, of course, because it is a very dangerous occupation. We had several basic principals in the mining industry, and one of them [relative to safety] was basically, “Have no secrets.”
If a huge company with lots of resources came up with a new technology that could save lives, they tended to share that and make it available to the smaller companies as well. Safety is not a competitive industry. Having a safe workforce makes us all look better, and safety is foremost on my mind. I have something that I am very excited about this Friday (Aug. 25). I am going on my first ride-along with some waste handlers with one of our largest companies. And I am scheduling several other ride-alongs as well.
When I was in industry, the most rewarding part of being a safety guy—and you can’t do safety from your desk—was to walk out on the shop floor and just spend time with the workers. You can learn more in 10 minutes with a worker than from spending a whole year paying for a consultant, doing an analysis and thinking on our own.
The guy or the woman doing the job can tell you exactly how to do it safely and exactly what the problems are. I am not just going on one ride-along to make myself look like I am involved in the industry, I am going to make it a routine thing where I get out in the field and figure out why our employees are being injured.
We are the fifth-most-dangerous occupation—waste handlers are—and that’s got to end. I am going to be out in the field using my safety expertise to figure out what is going on and lending a hand where I can. [Information sharing] is one of the things that has saved the mining industry. There are parts of the mining industry that are safer to work in than the retail industry, and we are going to do the same thing here.
WT: How important is it to collaborate with other industry groups on issues?
DS: I think trade associations in a similar space should work together. In the mining industry, we had probably five or six trade associations at the national level, not to mention dozens as the state level, and it was nothing short of a love fest is the only way I can describe it. We worked together like we were working for the same employer, and I want that to be the case here. I want those relationships to be genuine, and I certainly have a genuine intent to work closely with others, whether it be at the state level or the national level.
There’s nothing better than a piece of paper sent to a legislator with multiple logos on it. If you can have a couple of trade associations working for the same industry on a single piece of paper, it’s wonderful. If you can add labor to that, it’s even better. If you can add an activist group to it, it’s awesome.
Working like that gets things done, and my approach in general to government relations is looking for consensus and win-win,-win opportunities for everyone.
WT: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
DS: Waste handlers are being killed and it is just not acceptable. It is the fifth-most-dangerous occupation. They are being killed at a higher rate than policemen and firemen. If you were to ask the public to name the most dangerous occupations, I suspect no one would even think of our humble waste handlers.
I am so excited about my ride-along and future ride-alongs. I want to find out for myself what the dangers are so that I can use my years and years of safety experience to lend a hand. We are going to make progress in this area, and that’s one thing that I am most excited about.
Distracted driving puts our workers at risk. Sixteen states have passed Slow Down to Get Around legislation, but we have a lot more to get done. It would even be good to get states driver’s license exams to incorporate—just like they do with school buses and construction zones —the importance of slowing down for garbage trucks.
A strong waste industry is important, but it’s just not worth losing a single life for. We as an industry and the public at large need to fix this problem.