Culture of safety

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San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department’s Safety Management System reduces accidents by nearly 50 percent.

February 7, 2020

Photo Credit SWANA

The city of San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department serves 360,000 households, picking up curbside waste, recyclables and organics weekly. The department employs 730 people. Of that, 487 are drivers. Every day, the department has about 350 vehicles on the road, and these vehicles travel roughly 7.7 million miles annually.

“That’s a huge level of exposure,” says Nicholas Galus, the city’s solid waste assistant director.

One of the main challenges for the collection department pertains to the city’s street parking. Most accidents are caused by backing into or striking a parked vehicle, explains Walter Barrett, the city’s solid waste manager who oversees safety and training. However, since the department implemented its new Safety Management System (SMS), accidents have gone down by 47 percent. From 140 accidents in 2017, that number fell to 76 in 2018 and 67 in 2019. Throughout this period, injuries have also been reduced by 50 percent.

“Our goal is to ultimately get down to zero accidents. It’s a monumental task. As far back as 10 years ago, we averaged an injury a day, so we’ve made significant progress,” says Barrett, who has been with the city for 11 years.

Bottom to top

In 2016, San Antonio’s city manager tasked all city departments to come up with a defined safety strategy. The solid waste department began to review existing policies and identify gaps in its procedures. This directly led to the creation of the department’s SMS. Additionally, the department obtained the ISO 45001 Safety Certification during this period, becoming the first municipality in the world to achieve the certification.

“We already had a strong culture of safety, but we needed to change some policies,” Barrett says. “That caused us to have a fundamental shift in the culture of the department. What we’re finding out is that we can’t run this system unless we have bottom to top involvement, and clear understanding of the goals and tasks that are involved with the Safety Management System.”

Image: Walter Barrett accepted the 2019 Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Safety Award on behalf of San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management department.

Galus adds, “A lot of times, we write a policy, but we don’t go back and review it for years on end. With our new SMS, it requires us to always go back. It’s a very systematic way to ensure we’re never letting our program go stale and that the focus is always on continuous improvement.”

With the implementation of the SMS, the department’s safety team has also expanded. The core safety team consists of Erika Phillips, the city’s newly hired SMS manager, four safety trainers, two safety coordinators and liaisons from each of the department’s divisions, including fleet and collections.

“[The SMS] infiltrates all the way down to our field staff,” Galus says. “We make sure we’re not missing anything in regard to safety or risk concerns.”

"Before, we were reactive. Now, the system allows us to be proactive.” –Walter Barrett, San Antonio’s solid waste manager

Closing the gaps

A new facet of the SMS is regular roundtable meetings, where liaisons from the department’s divisions voice safety concerns, such as problematic blind spots or features on the trucks that could be improved.

“Some of [the issues and critiques] are actionable where we’re able to look at it right away. Other things we can assess and incorporate in the next purchase of trucks, including technology enhancements,” Galus says.

Another key focus of the system is increasing the training opportunities for operators, as well as the frequency of training. The department has established an annual driver recertification course and has invested in a truck driving simulator.

“Before, we would train drivers and the next time we saw them would be when they had an accident and then we had to do a post-accident refresher course,” Barrett says. “Now, we’re trying to do something before the accident happens. The truck driving simulator was a substantial investment. Right now, we use that as part of our new hire process, and we want to bring in every one of our operators [to train on it].”

The department is also working to develop profiles on each employee, which not only help keep records and track training and certifications for each employee, but identify if there’s a need for additional training.

Galus says, “We can look at each employee, know exactly where they stand and identify if they have any weaknesses so we can use the training on the simulator to address that.”

"The core of the system is people. ... That’s been the biggest thing.” –Erika Phillips, SMS manager, San Antonio

Phillips adds, “The core of the system is people. Basically, that’s been the biggest thing. We need to communicate, whether it be a new process or changes to the system. With communication comes the ability to identify hazards and reduce or eliminate risk, which is a big part of the process.”

Along with the implementation of the SMS and the organization’s new safety certification came a new auditing process. The department has assigned internal auditors, many of whom serve as their division’s liaison, who interview staff members at different sites to gauge their understanding of the safety program. The internal audit also helps the department prepare for its annual audit, which is required to maintain the department’s safety certification.

“There are always surprises, always something we didn’t catch, but the beauty of that is we’re catching it prior to the third-party audit,” Barrett says of the internal audits. “We’re getting the right folks involved in the process to make sure we cover those gaps and we don’t miss anything.”

Of the third-party audit process, Phillips says, “They go to the different sites and ask questions about the safety policy we have in place. Anyone can be asked a question, from director to maintenance.”

Barrett adds, “It’s not that we made a policy and it’s going to be put on the shelf. We’re constantly having to look at everything and make sure everybody is on top of their game.”

Getting to zero accidents

San Antonio’s safety and training department now operates as the Safety Reliability & Quality Assurance division.

“We’ve been rebranded,” Barrett says. “We’re no longer just the safety division. We’ve always had a real [safety-focused] task, but to get that rebranding [emphasizing continued due diligence] was essential to us moving forward.”

The SMS implementation has also led to the deployment of new technology in the city’s waste collection trucks. The department has piloted an automatic braking system and installed DriveCam from San Diego-based Lytx in the vehicles’ cabs, which mounts on the windshield and records the road from inside the vehicle. The department is also looking into how to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to recognize when a driver’s attention is not focused on the road.

“Any time I see an opportunity to implement technology, we try to capitalize on that,” Galus says. “With DriveCam, we’re able to capture these events. We know there’s a lot more we’re not seeing that hopefully we could catch and prevent leading up to the point of an accident.”

In addition to this technology aimed at reducing accidents, the department has also started a 16-week driver apprenticeship program and a corresponding driver recognition program, which pays $100 per year for accident-free driving.

“We’ve been studying the system for two years. It took us a full year to get prepared for it,” Barrett says. “We didn’t know how much work it was going to take, but we definitely see the value it brings. We see a night-and-day improvement in a year’s time. Safety is now on everybody’s mind. We are in a completely different space. Before, we were reactive. Now, the system allows us to be proactive.”

Thanks to the city’s work in bolstering its safety record, San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management department received the 2019 Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Safety Award for Best Safety Innovation.

“By looking at their work environment in a holistic manner, they were able to make demonstrable improvements, which were worth recognizing,” says Jesse Maxwell, advocacy and safety senior manager at SWANA, speaking of the department’s SMS program.

SWANA recognized Barrett with the Safety Award at Wastecon last year in Phoenix. When Barrett took the stage to accept the award, he says, “It felt like all 730 members of our team were up there with me.”

Reflecting on his time with the city, Barrett says, “I just know we were working hard before, but we weren’t really making any progress. Through different leadership ideas, that has changed. We’re living in a culture of safety now.”

The author is the digital editor of the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at