When Recycling Becomes a Health and Safety Hazard

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RecyclingOn July 3, 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Midland Davis Corp., a scrap metal recycling center in Moline, IL, with 19 safety violations to the tune of almost $65,000, according to an OSHA Region 5 news release.

Midland Davis’ repeated violations included lack of fall protection for workers, lack of machine guarding, failure to remove damaged equipment from service, failure to certify the completion of a hazard assessment, failure to provide safety information to employees, and a failure to maintain inspection records.

Recycling issues such as these, as well as the air quality in recycling centers, deafening noise levels, and problems with heavy machinery (such as conveyor and sorting devices), make the recycling industry a dangerous and potentially life-threatening field if proper health and safety precautions are not taken.

Students studying for an online emergency management degree should be aware of safety issues within the recycling industry before seeking employment as a health and safety professional. An understanding of pertinent issues could be useful as recycling centers expand and take on more contracts.

Taking on More Recycling Responsibilities

Until recently, China imported a massive portion of the world’s recycled materials. As of July 2017, however, China has implemented stricter quality control guidelines on such imports, which will, in turn, shift the burden of recycling to nations where the materials originate.

“China [notified] the World Trade Organization that it will ban imports on 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year,” researcher Christine Cole writes in “China Bans Foreign Waste – But What Will Happen to the World’s Recycling?” in Scientific American.

“This campaign against yang laji or ‘foreign garbage’ applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper and will result in China taking a lot less material as it replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its own domestic market.”

China’s most prolific recycling customers, mostly Western and EU member nations, are facing a difficult task. Certain plastics, for example, may need to be used for energy-recovery purposes (incineration), thrown in a landfill, or stored until new markets are discovered that make their use affordable and viable.

And each new task, formerly handled by Chinese recycling centers, comes a separate set of potential safety hazards. Incineration requires safety equipment, respirators, and constant inspections. Stored plastics are prone to fires. And new markets may pose entirely unknown hazards yet to be discovered.

“As municipalities expand their recycling programs, they can and should use their power to hold the industry accountable to high health and safety standards and outcomes,” explains Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in its report, “Sustainable and Safe Recycling: Protecting Workers Who Protect the Planet.”

“Because they contract with recycling companies to manage the municipal recycling stream, city governments create and shape local waste management and recycling markets in significant ways that can be leveraged to improve recycling worker health and safety.”

Recycling Safety Problems and Solutions

Recycling centers and facilities regularly deal with a large number of potentially hazardous conditions, including transportation, toxins from chemicals, heavy machinery, conveyor belts, grinders, carcinogens, explosives, shredders, and poor training. Together, these conditions and more could be a recipe for disaster unless steps are taken to increase workplace safety.

“Recycling may be good for the environment, but working conditions in the industry can be woeful,” environmental journalist Brian Joseph in “Dangerous Work for ‘Crap Money’: The Dark Side of Recycling,” on MotherJones.com.

“The recycling economy encompasses a wide range of businesses, from tiny drop-off centers in strip malls to sprawling scrap yards and cavernous sorting plants. The industry also includes collection services, composting plants, and e-waste and oil recovery centers. Some of the jobs at these facilities are among the most dangerous in America… Experts say much of the work is carried out by immigrants or temporary workers who are poorly trained and unaware of their rights.”

As bleak as the situation may sound, hope is available in the form of stricter regulations, thorough and constant safety inspections, and improved technology.

OSHA inspectors at recycling facilities now look for proof of a written annual employee training programs covering the use of safety equipment and procedures, according to recycling authority Lacey Evans’ RecycleMontana.org blog post, “Safety, Recycling and OSHA: Can They All Get Along?”

Evans also points out that OSHA personnel will be looking for proper use of personal protective equipment, proper lockout equipment and procedures, machine guarding and safety rails, and airborne contaminants.

Finally, advancements in technology and specifically in the robotics industry may help recycling centers avoid safety disasters in the future.

ZenRobotics produces robotic equipment that combines cameras, artificial intelligence, and robotic arms in a way that completely automates the sorting processes associated with recycling, according to Forbes contributor Jennifer Kite-Powell’s, “This Recycling Robot Uses Artificial Intelligence to Sort Your Recyclables.”

Eastern Kentucky University’s Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management (MSSSEM)

Ensuring that recycling facilities nationwide adhere to health and safety standards in the workplace rests with those who are educated in safety, security, and emergency management. Graduates of Eastern Kentucky’s MSSSEM program can expect to encounter a growing range of safety issues whether they work for a local school board or the Department of Homeland Security itself.

EKU offers occupational safety courses online, including emergency planning and response, security management, industrial safety, crisis response, fire safety, and intelligence analysis. Students can choose from one of three MSSSEM concentrations: Occupational safety, emergency management, and homeland security.

Our fully accredited online emergency management degree program prepares students to sit for their Associate Safety and Health Manager (ASHM) certification and the Certified Safety and Health Manager (CSHM) exam. To learn more about EKU’s MSSSEM program, visit the program webpage today.

Recommended Reading:

Common Errors in Safety Management

Top 7 Workplace Hazards

The Hierarchy of Hazard Control: A Five-Step Process


Region 5 Safety Violations – OSHA

China Bans Foreign Waste – Scientific American

Sustainable and Safe Recycling – No-Burn.org

The Dark Side of Recycling – MotherJones.com

Recycling and OSHA – RecycleMontana.org

Recycling Robot – Forbes