Covid-19’s multiple waste challenges

Covid-19 health precautions can create follow-on safety problems. These include workplace waste control and its treatment in the UK’s high-fatality rate recycling sector, where Covid-19 measures can distract from basic health and safety rules, reports Jon Herbert.

As with other waste, the extra waste generated by coronavirus special measures involves a journey from the point of creation through to handling, storage, collection, transport, treatment, recycling and disposal. As many workers are still at home, an increase in household waste is putting additional pressure on waste and recycling services.

However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is concerned that in implementing Covid-19 secure rules and so minimising employees’ exposure to coronavirus infection, waste management companies may be neglecting basic health and safety.

It is understandable that concerns over the virus are taking centre stage. For example, Unions are raising concerns over not classifying coronavirus PPE as hazardous waste. Where waste has been designated as “clinical waste”, procedures are already in place and those in self-isolation are encouraged by the Government to double-bag used PPE and store it for 72 hours before putting it out for disposal.

However, although pandemic precautions remain vital, a sector with fatality figures some 18 times higher than the all-industry average, according to HSE statistics, must not ignore other long-standing hazards.

Transport and machinery related-risks remain the waste sector’s primary causes of death. In terms of non-fatal accidents and injuries, slips, trips and falls, and lifting and handling are the biggest culprits.

The HSE quotes examples of workers concentrating on social distancing to the exclusion of watching vehicle movements. Similar best intentions over virus safety are leading to lapses in machinery lock-off and isolation, working at height precautions and other critical measures.

Disposing of Covid-19 waste

The Government provides detailed guidance on the disposal of personal or business waste in England during the current pandemic, including face coverings and personal protective equipment (PPE), in Coronavirus (Covid-19): disposing of waste.

Businesses are advised to:

  • provide extra bins for staff and customers to throw away waste face coverings and PPE used for social distancing, plus additional waste such as takeaway packaging and disposable tableware

  • ensure that staff/customers do not put face coverings and PPE into recycling bins — they cannot be recycled

  • make sure bins are emptied regularly, do not overflow, or create litter.

PPE does not have to be collected separately. However, if it is, the waste should be coded (described) correctly. Face coverings and PPE can also be disposed via an “offensive waste” collection (yellow bags with a black stripe) but PPE used at work to protect against ordinary non-Covid-19 risks can be thrown away as usual.

Specialist PPE recycling services are available — waste contractors should have details. It is also worth asking waste contractors if there is anything else your organisation can do to help with waste management and recycling.

Cleaning waste materials

Meanwhile,any additional waste that companies create during the extra cleaning of workplaces, business premises and public areas during the current pandemic should be disposed of as normal waste, with cloths and wipes put into the “black bag” waste bins. There is no requirement for such waste to be either held in an extra bag or stored before it is thrown away.

Any litter collected, including face coverings or PPE, should be handled with care using thick gloves and litter pickers but put into ordinary heavy-duty black bags.

Cleaning non-healthcare settings outside the home

Additional guidance related to waste associated with workplace cleaning where there are no symptoms or confirmed coronavirus cases can be found in Covid-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings outside the home from GOV.UK.

Where symptoms or confirmed cases are involved, separate guidance is given in Principles of cleaning after an individual with symptoms of, or confirmed Covid-19, the case has left the setting or area.

Advice to reduce the generation of cleaning waste in the first place includes:

  • reducing clutter

  • putting away difficult to clean items

  • using standard cleaning products: detergents and bleach

  • concentrating on the surfaces touched frequently, ie door handles, light switches, work surfaces, remote controls and electronic devices.

Fatality statistics for 2019/20

Annual 2019/20 fatality figures released recently by the HSE show that the total fatalities of 111 workers between April 2019 and March 2020 was the lowest annual figure yet recorded (a rate of 0.34 deaths per 100,000 employees) and a fall of 38 on the previous comparable year.

However, the HSE points out that it is likely that Covid-19 impacts on the economy in the early months of 2020 did affect the final results.

Importantly, fatal injury statistics do not include deaths caused by occupational diseases, and therefore do not reflect any directly-related coronavirus deaths.

Overall, while there has been a long-term reduction in annual fatalities by almost half in the last 20 years, first quarter anomalies in the current year aside, the average number of deaths has been broadly level in recent years.

Over the past year, five deaths in waste and recycling, a relatively small employment sector, represents an annual average fatal injury rate some 18 times higher than the all-industry rate.

Conclusion

One of the side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the generation of potentially infected additional waste material that needs to be separated, collected, stored and transported safely for appropriate disposal.

However, HSE is particularly concerned that, in taking pandemic precautions, many waste companies are neglecting other basic health and safety priorities, especially those related to transport and machinery use. The Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum (WISH) warns that “Health and safety requirements, such as plant operator licences, permits to work, machinery lock off and isolation, etc MUST NOT be compromised; Covid-19 is not an excuse to reduce safety or training requirements.”

Many organisations will have made operational changes due to the pandemic, but health and safety should be a core consideration when considering the changes to avoid unintended consequences.

Further information