What to know about transfer station management

What to know about transfer station management

Proper transfer station management requires keen insights into site design, regulations and operational workflows.

June 25, 2019

Transfer stations require proper management to facilitate order and ensure on-site safety. However, high traffic, tight quarters and various oversight responsibilities often make transfer stations difficult to manage.

To help transfer station managers and other industry participants get the tools they need to run these facilities, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) developed its Transfer Station Management Course. This course addresses operational best practices managers can use to facilitate the safe and efficient management of waste through a facility.

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Joe Williams, principal of Common Sense Consulting of Franklin, Tennessee, and an instructor of SWANA’s Transfer Station Management Course, has spent three decades in the waste industry. He worked as a district manager of environmental, safety and health for Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) of Memphis, Tennessee, and as a director of solid waste for the city of Franklin before transitioning to his current role.

According to Williams, the first consideration that paves the way for a well-managed station is having a facility that is adequately built to handle the volume of waste and traffic that is, or could eventually, flow through a building.

“The first thing you need to make sure you have [is] enough property to ensure safe movement of both large and small vehicles, and you also need to keep these vehicles separate,” Williams says. “You also have to make sure you have enough room for the immediate programs you’re planning for, as well as those that may come later [if your needs change]. Most importantly, be sure you have good data on the type and volume of waste you are handling and what the growth prospects are in your area. I’ve seen folks handling 300 tons of waste a day build a station for 400 tons a day and two years later, they have garbage spilling out the door because they didn’t plan for the future.”

Because these facilities are often used for decades, Williams says it is best for sites not to be “landlocked” should more area be needed to accommodate changing volumes or site operations. These sites should also be well maintained to appeal to the neighboring community. Williams says that a little effort landscaping the front of a facility and preserving its appearance can mitigate complaints and reduce conflicts with the community.

Williams says that while a good fence, strong gate, lock and surveillance cameras should be standard to protect transfer stations from outside threats, a continued investment in maintenance is needed to keep a facility and its assets looking—and operating—their best from within.

“Good, complete maintenance is the key to protecting the building and the rolling stock, but operators need a budget to do it right,” he says. “I’m always amazed at folks who will buy a $100,000 piece of equipment and then budget $1,500 for maintenance and repair in its third year.”

Understanding the importance of compliance and regulation

Transfer station managers never know what kind of waste might inadvertently be brought on-site, but keeping a close eye on waste composition is essential for avoiding enforcement by regulators. That’s why Williams says it’s important for transfer station managers to vet every load brought into a station.

“While landfills are required to have a waste screening plan in place and are required to screen a percentage of all loads, transfer stations, on the whole, do not,” he says. “I’m a proponent of transfer stations instituting their own waste screening requirements, including inspections. They are easily accomplished by the loader (or spotter if one is used) as the collection truck unloads. If there is a problem, it is discovered immediately, and the collector can be notified of responsibility. More than that, if you inform the driver right away, they may have a pretty good idea of exactly where the contraband was collected based on its position in the load.

“This waste screening starts with the hauler and moves to the transfer station, then the disposal site, so it requires consistent training at each level. If waste collectors can find unacceptable items in the stream and remove it at the outset, it saves transfer station and landfill managers from having to spot it. However, this is not always the case. That’s why if the transfer station can catch what collectors miss, it saves landfill operators from having to do it—that’s three opportunities to keep the wrong kind of waste out of the disposal stream.”

Williams says being vigilant on inspecting waste and keeping proper records can help alleviate the headache of dealing with regulators. He cites examples from his time working as director of solid waste for the city of Franklin as evidence of how remaining in compliance can help ease the burdens of enforcement.

“It sounds simple, but I struggled more as a director [dealing with regulations] than any other part of my job. Why? Because sometimes the regulations change or sometimes things got so busy, I couldn’t complete an inspection or review a file in a timely manner. But when our team finally got it together, it made dealing with my state regulator so much easier. He would show up, we’d hand him the file, and he would do his thing in the conference room. Eventually it became just a friendly discussion—sometimes he asked to see paperwork and sometimes he didn’t. But it helped build a rapport so that if something did go wrong, I was able to call him and get advice on how to correct it before it became a Notice of Violation,” Williams says.

Managing with efficiency and safety in mind

Perhaps the biggest challenge for transfer station managers is coordinating the flow of traffic in and out of the site in a safe, efficient manner. Establishing a protocol for managing waste that limits cross traffic is a must for alleviating congestion and safeguarding against preventable accidents.

Williams says he favors the top-load method of filling trucks since it is effective and cuts down on congestion.

“I’m a big proponent of the top-load method from a tipping floor. My motto is, ‘Keep it simple, stupid,’” Williams says. “This allows for simple operation. A collection truck unloads on the tipping floor, the loader pushes waste to a hole in the floor where it drops into the transfer vehicle and off you go. It’s simple and quick. Using this method, if you’re short on transfer vehicles, you can stockpile to get caught up and not hold up the collection fleet. It takes just three simple steps. What makes this so efficient is that the number of working parts is minimized. This method works best in locations where managers have a commitment (and backup of their leaders) to enforce safety measures, spec and maintain the right equipment, and hire and train good employees.”

Williams says that while he favors the top-load method, for those relying on the tipping floor to transfer materials, investing in a good floor is a must. A quality floor can reduce needed site maintenance and help a transfer station save money over time.

“When the city built a new transfer station in Franklin, Tennessee, in 2004, we paid a nice price for a floor topped with 1.5 inches of iron-infused concrete,” he says. “Fifteen years later, I don’t think they have had to replace the entire floor yet. The floor is the lifeblood of a transfer station.”

Regardless of how waste is processed in a station, transparency and open lines of communication are paramount. Williams says maintaining a safe facility should be the primary concern for site managers. This includes not only creating a culture of compliance for employees, but also educating the public on safety best practices.

“There is no greater responsibility for a manager than the safety of his or her employees, customers and community, period,” Williams says. “Safety is more than a practice; it is a culture. It includes training and constant communication from bottom to top, top to bottom.”

Williams says managers need to take a comprehensive view on enforcing safety. This includes everything from making sure employees don the appropriate protective gear to having regular occupational training for staff. Williams says this training should be situational in nature to educate employees on real-world safety scenarios. However, even regular instruction can fall flat if it’s not prioritized throughout a company and its culture. He says that managers should spend some time with employees face-to-face in the scale house, on the floor and in trucks with transfer drivers heading to the landfill to see the daily issues employees face.

“More than just training employees on all the standard environmental and operational classes and programs you might have in place, safety is a committed attitude that is ingrained in an operation,” Williams says. “As much as waste collectors have to take the risk around traffic, transfer station employees are constantly around large pieces of equipment in near-constant motion, typically in a small and finite space. While every module of the waste business—collection, transfer and disposal—carries its own risk factors, I’m not sure there is a place that has more potential for danger than on the tipping floor of a transfer station.”

Beyond employees, transfer station managers should make transparency a priority with incoming members of the public. Williams says that each transfer station should have clearly worded entry signs that spell out the hours, costs, accepted materials, local emergency numbers and the contact information of the facility operator. He notes that social media channels, like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the company’s website should also be updated regularly to inform members of the public who are looking for site information before they arrive.

Once on-site, Williams says separating the public and smaller operations from larger haulers is imperative for efficiency and safety at the transfer station.

“Transfer stations should go to any lengths necessary to separate commercial and one-time mom-and-pop consumers,” Williams says. “Commercial drivers are pros. They are at your facility every day, and they are anxious to get in and get out. One-time users in pickups or small trailers may have never seen anything like a transfer station, usually do not have the proper personal protection gear and will be intimidated by large trucks. Have a separate area well away from the station itself with roll-off containers if possible to accommodate these individuals.”

Williams also says having the right type of employee at the scale house is imperative for establishing a positive customer experience, so managers should choose wisely when deciding on where to place staff.

“Remember that the most important member of your staff works at the scale house. Why? Because that person is going to set the tone for every customer that enters your facility. They are responsible for directing one-off users to the safest place in the safest way,” Williams says. “Moreover, I’ve seen drivers mad as can be hit the scale and watch as the attendant not only calmed them down, but had them smiling. I’ve also seen drivers in a good mood turn ballistic over some sourpuss who probably should not still have a job.”

Although there are a lot of moving parts one has to manage when overseeing a transfer station, Williams says being mindful of the details and taking advantage of available training and certification can give managers the tools they need to facilitate production while avoiding potential headaches.

This article originally ran in the May/June issue of Waste Today. The author is the editor of Waste Today magazine and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.