Last reviewed 8 April 2020

The waste and recycling sector has a fatality rate 17 times higher than the general industry average. We consider the main hazards and how the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) Forum is working to make the expanding sector safer.

As major economies move towards a sustainable circular economy, where resources are reused rather than binned, the waste and recycling sector is set to expand.

UK growth was previously driven by the EU; its longer-term post-Brexit strategy is not yet clear. However, the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum (WISH) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are committed to reducing relatively high injuries and fatalities rates.

Improving health and safety: waste statistics

WISH says that health and safety across waste and recycling (covering waste collection, treatment and disposal activities and materials recycling, but not wholesale waste and scrap) has actually improved significantly over the past decade.

The Environmental Services Association estimates that more than 100,000 people were working in the UK waste industry in 2018. HSE’s annual waste statistics up to March 2019 showed that some 6000 of those workers suffered from new or longstanding work-related ill health.

Of the 6000 cases, three-quarters were attributed to stress, depression and anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders. The rest were due to other illnesses.

Additionally, there were some 4000 injuries: 30% due to slips, trips and falls, 28% handling and lifting and 11% from contact with moving/falling objects.

There were also 7 deaths; although this number is relatively small, and lower than 12 and 14 recorded in the two previous years, statistically they make the sector at 6.05 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers much higher than the UK industrial average of 0.45 per 100,000 workers.

Of these, 30% were caused by contact with moving machinery, 28% contact with a moving vehicle and 16% by being struck by moving/falling objects. Only agriculture, forestry and fishing fatalities rates are higher at 9.21 per 100,000 employees.

What are the health hazards in waste and recycling?

Health hazards faced by staff, visitors and others coming into contact with operations enter the body through four main routes, according to the HSE:

  • in contact with the skin, particularly cuts and abrasions, or via the eye’s mucus membrane

  • pathogens entering the body through puncture or sharps injuries

  • eating, drinking or smoking: substances transferred from hands to the mouth

  • inhalation via the lungs.

Healthcare or medical waste, as well as general hygiene waste (soiled bedding, incontinence pads) should only be processed by licensed facilities.

The HSE website gives further information covering bioaerosols, needlestick injuries and personal hygiene, with guidance on infectious media found in waste, routes to infection, and preventive and protective measures.

What are the hazards in waste and recycling?

The HSE points out that waste collection transport poses the most significant risk to workers and the public. Although being hit by a moving vehicle accounts for only 4% of accidents, it is responsible for more than 40% of fatalities in this sector. Safe operations involve assessing the risks on the route and identifying whether these increase at certain times of day, setting procedures for safe reversing and, of course, proper segregation of pedestrians from the moving vehicles.

The other main physical hazards in waste and recycling, along with musculoskeletal disorders from manual handling, include the following.

Slips and trips, due to:

  • rough, uneven ground or changes in floor level, as well as slopes and steps

  • spillage of items

  • waste mounds causing obstacles

  • trailing cables or hoses

  • slippery surfaces

  • poor lighting

  • unsuitable footwear.

Injuries from machinery, due to:

  • poor machinery guarding

  • improper use

  • lack of instruction and training

  • poor maintenance and inspection regimes

  • lack of safe systems of work

  • unsafe loads

  • instability.

Other risks arise from lifting operations, working at height and confined spaces.

What is WISH?

WISH provides health and safety information for the waste and recycling sector, identifies solutions and encourages action. It works by consensus, partnership and promoting good practice, with a strategic aim of a 10% year-on-year reduction in RIDDOR reported accident rates and zero deaths.

WISH comprises, and was formed to communicate and consult with, key stakeholders such as local and national government bodies, equipment manufacturers, trade and professional associations and trade unions. It is a membership organisation with various working groups addressing different issues and goals for the industry.

Further information

The following guidance is available from WISH:

  • good practice case studies — to inspire through the actions and initiatives of operators addressing challenges in similar situations

  • informal information sheets — on various aspects of health and safety in the waste management industry, to help operators improve their performance.

Additional useful information from the HSE covers the main waste management processes and associated causes of injury and illness. The HSE website also considers municipal and commercial collections.