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Features - Safety Focus | Collection

How New Jersey’s ACUA improved its safety performance through a more personalized approach to employee engagement.

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December 6, 2021

Photos courtesy of ACUA

Ask any successful waste operator, and they’ll be sure to tell you that safety is a primary focus of their organization. But despite an industrywide focus on reducing the number of on-the-job injuries and fatalities in the waste sector, these incidents continue to be all too common.

According to data published last year by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its “2019 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries” report, the waste industry was the sixth most deadly occupation in 2019. While this marked a one-spot improvement from a multiyear trend that saw waste and recycling hauling as the fifth deadliest industry, the fact remains that these incidents pose a daily threat to collection workers.

To combat these occurrences, waste companies have resorted to investing heavily in truck cameras and other fleet technology, increasing training and spending more time conducting toolbox talks centered on safe operations.

But at least in one case, it was the messenger, not just the message, that helped spark a change towards safer operations.

Making it personal

The Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA) handles the waste and recycling needs for Atlantic County, New Jersey. In 2019, the authority was looking for ways to help reinforce the importance of safety in the field to its approximately 300 employees.

Rather than recite the same rote messaging week after week, ACUA Safety and Risk Manager Janette Kessler wanted to devise a strategy that would have an impact for each individual. The result was the formation of the authority’s See You at Home campaign.

“I have always believed that safety only works if it’s personal,” Kessler says. “I encourage employees always at our new hire safety training, don’t be safe because of OSHA, or because I’m the safety person and I tell you to be safe, you should really focus on being safe for the people that are at home, for the people that really matter to you. … But how do you get that philosophy really into people’s heads? That’s where the campaign came from.”

Kessler and the ACUA began to coordinate the campaign and its messaging in the latter half of 2019. The outreach included a letter, which was sent to employees’ homes, that was addressed to ACUA family members and friends.

The letter, in part, read: “ACUA is kicking off a new See You at Home safety campaign to remind employees of the important reason we take safety precautions on the job—to make it home safely. We invite family members or friends to participate in the campaign by submitting a video or photo reminding our ACUA employees to stay safe on the job.”

Kessler says that over the course of several months, the authority received close to 50 submissions from employees’ family and friends in the form of pictures and cellphone videos. These submissions were then posted and shared via the ACUA’s social media accounts, through its internal intranet platform and at its various offices. Once the authority received all its submissions, it compiled everything into a single video that was also distributed through ACUA’s various channels.

Although the campaign was relatively simple, the effect it had on staff was instantaneous, Kessler says.

“I can tell you, when you are working with someone, and before you step out of the facility and onto the road that day and into your garbage truck, and your partner’s children just flashed by you on a video and that’s the reason why they’re working to make it safely home, you’re going to work a little safer,” Kessler says.

The proof in the percentages

ACUA conducted its See You at Home campaign for the entirety of 2020. According to Kessler, the collections department’s safety metrics were dramatically improved from the year prior. She notes that the county saw a 17.9 percent reduction in workers’ comp claims as well as a 26.2 percent reduction in auto liability expenses, going from $62,375 in 2019 to $46,021 in 2020.

These improvements were substantial enough for ACUA to garner the Solid Waste Association of North America’s (SWANA’s) 2021 SWANA Safety Award for Best Safety Innovation, which “showcases an exemplary safety innovation undertaken by the solid waste industry during the previous year to reduce hazards and accidents, develop company regulations and best practices, or improve worker safety,” according to SWANA.

“We are very pleased to now be recognized for innovation regarding safety at ACUA,” Kessler said regarding the award. “ACUA has always prided itself on being at the forefront of innovation in environmental stewardship, renewable energy and alternative fuels. To be recognized for innovation in safety as well is really rewarding.

“Our See You at Home campaign serves as a reminder for employees to focus on the importance of working safely not only for themselves and for the organization, but also for their family and friends and the life they enjoy outside of work. See You at Home helps everyone to see and appreciate the individuality of our employees through the eyes of the people who care about them [most]. Our employees are our No. 1 asset, and we thank our employees for staying safe and helping to keep others safe on the job each day. ACUA appreciates SWANA’s commitment to safety and the recognition of SWANA’s Best Safety Innovation award.”

“I know that word on the program has spread, and that has made me so happy. … I think we’re into the thousands of people that we’ve touched by this campaign or who have been inspired by it. It’s very exciting.” - ACUA Safety and Risk Manager Janette Kessler

Looking to what’s next

With the success the See You at Home campaign enjoyed in 2020, Kessler says that the ACUA is already working on ideas for its next safety-related initiative. However, the authority is presently aiming the majority of its safety focus on COVID safety and prevention.

“Once things settle down, we’re hoping in 2022 when most of the world is vaccinated and things get a little bit better, then we’ll be able to either do a round two [of the See You at Home campaign] and solicit some more pictures and videos, or come up with something equally as exciting and fun and get the buy-in from the employees on that,” Kessler says.

While it remains to be seen if the campaign will be revived for ACUA employees in the future, Kessler says that the See You at Home program has garnered significant interest from other waste companies and municipalities that have heard of the initiative and the impact it had in Atlantic County. She notes that whether it’s people coming up to her in person or reaching out through email, many individuals have expressed their interest in replicating the program in their own communities.

“I’ve heard from probably about 15 people so far either wanting information or statistics or just a copy of the template of the letter [we sent out],” Kessler says. “So, I know that word on the program has spread, and that has made me so happy. Just most recently, I was speaking to someone from Austin, Texas, [who saw me make a presentation at Wastecon 2021 in Orlando], and he said that they have 810 employees and are interested in doing their own version of the program. In my mind, I thought, ‘There’s another 810 employees that ACUA has potentially offered some way to be safer on the job.’ I think we’re into the thousands of people that we’ve touched by this campaign or who have been inspired by it. It’s very exciting.”

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be reached at aredling@gie.net.