Last reviewed 12 February 2014

Waste management can be a dangerous business. The waste management industry has a poor health and safety record compared with the rest of British industry; the overall accident rate is four times the national average, while the number of fatalities per 10,000 workers is 10 times higher. Caroline Hand reports.

The majority of accidents occur during waste collection and involve vehicles or other plants. Looking more specifically at the management of waste chemicals in October 2013, the Environment Agency published an alarming catalogue of serious incidents involving major fires and explosions, the release of toxic fumes, pollution of air, soil and water and, worst of all, the death and injury of workers (Review of Incidents at Hazardous Waste Management Facilities).

In December 2013, a Lancashire waste treatment company was fined £150,000 for a breach of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974. Three employees were caught in a fireball after aerosols containing flammable liquid exploded in a shredder.

While these incidents occurred in dedicated waste management installations, there are lessons to be learnt for any business where waste is handled, stored and treated. Moreover, waste producers have a duty of care towards the contractors who enter their premises to collect waste, and also to the businesses that subsequently treat and dispose of it. If waste is incorrectly labelled or consigned in unsound containers, the risk of an unexpected chemical reaction, fire or spillage at the treatment plant is greatly increased.

Risk assessment

The basis of good health and safety management is a thorough and detailed risk assessment, and the same principles apply to assessing risks in waste management as to any other workplace activity. Most managers will be familiar with the risk assessment process, which simply stated is:

  • identify the hazards

  • decide who might be harmed and how

  • evaluate the risks

  • decide on control measures

  • record significant findings and implement controls

  • review the assessment and update if necessary.

Where chemical wastes are involved, a Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) assessment will be required. Under COSHH, the employer must identify the hazards and eliminate or minimise the risks, using personal protective equipment (PPE) only as a last resort. Workers must receive suitable training in safe working, and specifically in the use of PPE.

What are the hazards?

The hazards of waste collection and handling are well known. For the waste industry in general, the majority of accidents involve vehicles. Reversing a vehicle is a hazardous activity, particularly if it is being backed into a confined space where workers or pedestrians could be crushed. In September 2013, a worker at a Dublin recycling plant was crushed to death by a forklift truck as he unloaded refrigerators.

Serious injuries are also incurred when heavy bins or equipment fall onto employees. Causes include worn, defective equipment, unsafe systems of work or bins that are incompatible with the contractor's hoist. Besides these serious hazards, waste operatives carrying heavy bins endure more than their share of the more commonplace workplace accidents — slips, trips, falls and manual handling injuries. Where waste contains chemicals, they are at risk from contact dermatitis or even poisoning.

Those handling waste chemicals must take into account the specific hazards associated with the substances. Some of the worst waste-related accidents have occurred when incompatible substances have been mixed or stored too close together (see the Sandhurst example below). Inadequate packaging of hazardous materials can also lead to dangerous chemical reactions: for example, a particularly destructive fire can result when lithium/copper strips from battery manufacture come into contact with water (eg as a result of not being securely packed). If an unplanned exothermic reaction takes place, a catastrophic fire is all too often the result. The storage of flammable liquid wastes near to combustible items, such as plastic containers, is another obvious hazard. Accidents have also occurred where liquid chemical wastes have reacted with sludges of unknown composition at the bottom of storage or mixing tanks.

Aerosols can be particularly hazardous as they may explode and fly through the air if heated or shredded. They need secure storage, eg in a specially designed cage.

Managing the risks

When putting waste management contracts out to tender, waste producers should ensure that they specify safe systems of work. At this stage, the client should consider issues such as:

  • whether reversing can be eliminated, for example, by specifying a particular access route or making sure that bins are placed at an accessible location

  • timing collections to avoid busy periods when more pedestrians will be present.

If providing bins, the waste producer needs to check that they are compatible with the contractor's hoist and also that they are sound and well maintained. Anyone handling waste containers, whether employed by the waste producer or contractor, will need adequate PPE. This is likely to include:

  • hard hats

  • high-visibility clothing

  • safety boots with ankle support (to avoid slipping on muddy or wet surfaces)

  • heavy-duty gloves

  • cut-resistant trousers.

Those handling chemical wastes may also need goggles and respiratory protection.

Hygiene is vital, particularly with chemical wastes. Staff should be provided with handwashing and changing facilities.

Employers must ensure that anyone handling waste receives appropriate training, whether in manual handling techniques, good hygiene to prevent dermatitis, the use of PPE or the specific hazards of waste chemicals. Staff should be able to recognise hazardous substances and know what to do in the case of a spillage, including an awareness of reporting requirements.

Preventing chemical accidents

Many chemical accidents can be traced back to inaccurate or inadequate waste descriptions by the waste producer, or the failure of the waste producer to segregate out reactive or flammable chemicals from a consignment of general waste or “laboratory smalls”. Businesses may also be at fault if they fail to check whether a waste treatment facility is really able to treat their difficult waste stream — if not, it could end up being stored indefinitely in hazardous conditions.

One of England's worst chemical waste incidents occurred at Sandhurst, near Gloucester, in October 2000. This incident vividly highlighted all that can go wrong when chemicals are inadequately catalogued, stored and managed. A fire first started in the “laboratory smalls” area, probably due to the storage of incompatible substances in the same drum. It quickly spread to adjoining intermediate bulk containers (IBCs), which were filled with highly flammable isopropyl alcohol (IPA). The plastic IBCs failed and the IPA leaked, fuelling the fire that spread to other containers of flammable liquid. Once these exploded, the fire took on catastrophic proportions, destroying the site office and causing the explosion of a tanker of chlorinated chemicals.

Local residents were evacuated, but many were affected by fumes. The final chapter of the disaster took place three days later when the River Severn flooded, allowing a cocktail of hazardous substances to enter the water. A subsequent investigation of the site unearthed drums containing waste from BSE research, which had been left off the site inventory, plus an accumulation of radioactive wastes that the facility had accepted, but had not been able to treat.

While the waste company, with both its grossly inadequate arrangements for storing flammable liquids and failure to observe proper waste acceptance procedures, bears the lion's share of the blame, there are lessons to be learnt for producers of laboratory waste. The Environment Agency reports that many of the laboratory smalls stored on site were improperly packed and not clearly identified. Waste producers are responsible for ensuring that a full list of laboratory smalls travels with them to the treatment facility, and incompatible substances should never be stored within the same drum. The producers of the radioactive and BSE wastes should have ascertained, prior to entering a contract, whether the facility was able to treat them. Failure to do this is a breach of the waste Duty of Care under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Any laboratory or chemical manufacturer that stores or treats its own wastes on site must ensure that all chemical hazards are accurately identified, and that storage areas allow the adequate segregation of reactive and flammable substances. The treatment process will be regulated under an environmental permit, but this will not prevent accidents unless employers monitor compliance with the permit conditions. The accident at the Lancashire treatment plant occurred because workers ignored the company waste acceptance procedure — lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that the cans contained a household product.

The record of accidents in chemical waste facilities makes sobering reading: if something goes wrong in hazardous waste treatment, the consequences can be devastating. The health and safety of employees and the public is the first priority, and employers should refer to the detailed guidance on waste handling, storage and safety in chemical treatment available from the HSE and Environment Agency.