An industry at attention

Features - Collection

As COVID-19 concerns accelerated in mid-March, waste management companies heeded the call to help keep collection workers safe.

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June 3, 2020

Photo Credit Republic Services

Despite the drastic changes that impacted businesses and individuals from coast to coast starting in mid-March, the waste industry didn’t skip a beat in answering the call to serve customers amid the challenges of COVID-19.

Although workers remained on the job, the virus necessitated greater due diligence pertaining to collection safety, according to Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Executive Director and CEO David Biderman.

“Waste management companies and municipal sanitation departments have taken many steps to help protect their frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Biderman says. “First, they have made operational changes to ensure social distancing in facilities. For example, drivers no longer meet as a group before shifts, and sorters are separated on the sort lines at many MRFs either by plexiglass or are otherwise 6 feet apart. The cabs of the trucks are being cleaned after every shift, and high touch points such as door handles, steering wheels and knobs are receiving extra attention. Break rooms and lunchrooms are being closed or modified temporarily to keep workers from congregating, and disposal facilities are ensuring the scale house attendant isn’t handling cash or interacting the same way with the driver of the trucks. Second, there has been increased emphasis on personal hygiene, including frequent handwashing and the use of disinfectant wipes. Third, although the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] (CDC), [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] (OSHA) and others agree that waste materials are not a vector for the transmission of COVID, and that regular PPE (i.e., gloves) should be sufficient to protect employees, many employers are providing additional PPE including masks and facial coverings to their frontline workers.”

Keeping distant

Republic Services says that the Phoenix-based company immediately tried to limit the contact its drivers had with one another once it understood the threat of the coronavirus. This required segregating staff and closing off access to some parts of its facilities.

“In March, we made extensive changes at all of our facilities to help ensure proper social distancing for all our employees. This included adjusting our procedures to limit the number of drivers interacting with other drivers and employees when they crew in and out at the beginning and end of the day,” a Republic spokesperson says.

Waste Pro, Longwood, Florida, says the company has taken similar actions to distance workers. The company says it has restricted access to non-company personnel coming into its locations, provided additional space for office employees, allowed some staff to work from home, modified lunch and conference rooms to help encourage workers to spread out, and moved meetings outside when possible and limited groups to 10 or fewer while maintaining the recommended 6 feet of distance.

For its part, Rumpke Waste and Recycling, Colerain Township, Ohio, says it has introduced a pandemic sick leave policy to make it easier for those who may be ill to stay home from work. The company has also adjusted time clock procedures, staggered or limited break room use and changed meeting policies to reduce the volume of those working in the same place at the same time. The company also says its IT department ensured the possibility of remote work for nearly 800 employees within a week, and its staff meetings are now conducted virtually when possible to help distance staff.

Taking sanitation seriously

Although cleanliness is always a priority for waste haulers, now more than ever, companies are working to make sure sanitation products are available to workers to help keep employees safe.

Waste Pro says facility areas drivers frequent are now stocked with cleaners and wipes at all times. Additionally, the company stocks pre- and post-trip areas with cleaning supplies and assigns personnel to sanitize vehicles and equipment each evening. If a truck is worked on, it is sanitized again after repairs are made. The company also provides sanitizing wipes to each equipment operator and helper crew to use during their shift, and truck interiors—including steering wheels, door and window latches and dashes—are wiped down daily.

Republic says beyond advocating for better sanitation practices among workers, it has also been more proactive in setting the company’s cleaning schedules because of the virus.

“We have instructed employees on personal hygiene protocol for COVID-19 and ... all of our facilities and equipment are on enhanced cleaning schedules, with cleanings scheduled multiple times per day. We also are conducting deep cleaning and disinfection of any operating location, including trucks and heavy equipment, that may have been exposed to COVID-19,” the company says

Stocking up on Personal protective equipment

With the demand for PPE sky high, waste companies have had to work to keep employees outfitted with ample safety gear.

Rumpke says its Procurement and Safety divisions have “worked tirelessly to secure and distribute gloves and a variety of face coverings, including masks of all sorts, from disposable to reusable and even gaiters, to provide extra protection in the field and in office environments.”

Waste Pro says it has strategized to provide collection crews with multiple pairs of gloves so workers can change them out when needed. The company also says it provides masks and neck gaiters to protect employees and those who come into contact with them.

Even though the distribution of PPE is essential, ensuring it is correctly used is just as important.

Waste Pro says that the company’s management provides consistent messaging to truck crews reminding them to get in the habit of removing their gloves and sanitizing their hands before touching their face. The company also stresses the importance of adhering to CDC guidelines for preventing COVID-19 exposure and provides handouts and posters covering the guidelines. Waste Pro says it frequently discusses these best practices with staff to keep safety top of mind.

A comprehensive effort

While company managers and office personnel aren’t on the streets manning collection trucks, they still play a pivotal role in keeping workers safe.

“The weight of the pandemic has rested heavily on our managers and frontline employees, and they haven’t missed a beat,” Rumpke says. “Managers have essentially had to shift all procedures without much time to do so, even while the volumes of residential waste soared and commercial waste dropped off. These managers distributed information and safety gear, hosted meetings and check-ins by phone, provided lunches and perks for their teams, all while ensuring customer satisfaction. They’ve been amazing.”

According to Waste Pro, company management’s concerted effort to protect its staff hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“The pandemic has strengthened the relationships between our managers and frontline workers,” the company says. “We care about the safety of our employees and moved as quickly as we could to provide what was needed to keep them safe. We have gotten better by working together, and we are learning that many of the changes we have made should be a permanent part of our operations going forward.”

As businesses have reopened and the country tries to regain some semblance of normalcy, the industry remains dedicated to making sure that waste workers continue to stay safe on the job.

“Our drivers, operators, customer service reps, MRF and landfill employees have never worked harder,” Rumpke says. “During the pandemic, our efforts to protect human health through proper waste services were critical. We too had an essential role, and Rumpke’s everyday heroes rose to the occasion. We have never been prouder.”

“Keeping our employees and their families safe and well while providing much-needed services for customers will always be Rumpke’s main focus,” Rumpke added. “We are strong, we remain poised and ready to continue fighting through the challenges the pandemic presents.”

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