Keeping the workforce safe in a risky working environment

Written by: RWW | Published:

Paul Shaw examines the occupational hazards experienced by front line workers in the waste management industry and looks at measures on how to protect them against risks including working with highly combustible materials, exposure to harmful substances and confined space working.

The UK generates over 430 million tonnes of waste each year and the industry employs around 160,000 workers to collect and process it, as well as maintain the network. 

This growing industry is predicted to experience a steady increase in line with the UK government‘s on-going commitment to substantially reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill sites. Materials recycling facilities (MRFs) will play an important role in meeting this demand, resulting in long term expansion for the industry. 

However, working in the waste and recycling industry can be a high risk business.  

Recycling and waste management plants are busy places with high volumes of traffic, often working in confined spaces. The waste itself can also pose a number of threats to workers including exposure to sharp objects, slips, trips and falls, disease, burning waste, leachate breakouts at landfill sites and potential dangers from landfill gas spillage of fuels and hazardous materials.

Processing and handling hazards

Once waste has been collected, it must undergo a number of sorting and processing activities in order to segregate landfill from re-usable materials. 

The method of sorting varies based on the nature of the waste, the ease of segregation and the yield and quality of the resultant recycled materials. Once the recyclable materials are extracted, they are processed and sent to specialised facilities for treatment and further processing. 

These processes include composting, mechanical and biological treatment, wood recycling, scrap and metal recycling, plastics, glass or rubber processing. 

Some of these processes can result in exposure to specific occupational health risks if suitable personal protection is not worn. 

Hazardous substances can be inhaled through the lungs, be passed through cuts and abrasions to the skin, ingested through hand-to-mouth contact or injected through sharps injuries. 

Specific hazards faced by workers in recycling and waste plants that require personal protection equipment (PPE) to be worn include exposure to bioaerosols, organic dusts in the atmosphere such as wood dust and noise exposure from heavy machinery.

Exposure to noise

One of the most common health hazards experienced by workers at MRFs is noise exposure. This can cause irreversible hearing damage and is difficult to detect at an early stage as the effects build up gradually over time. 

Most MRFs have processes which emit high levels of noise and in areas where noise levels exceed 85dB(A), employers are required to take action under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. Hearing protection is required to be worn by both operatives and site users when working in noisy environments such as power generation plants, in vehicle cabs, or inside buildings where waste is being sorted mechanically. 

Head protection

Where there is a risk of falling objects for example, where vehicles are discharging loads, where work is taking place around or under conveyor belts, at waste-picking stations, or around skip doors hard hats must be worn. Where there is no danger of falling objects bump caps provide protection from cuts and general bumps to the head. 

Appropriate glove, hearing and eye protection may also be necessary, for example when handling chemicals or fuels. 

Respiratory protection

Bioaerosols are another common hazard experienced by workers in this industry, in particular those working with composting material. When compost is handled it generates dust which creates a bioaerosol (micro-organisms made airborne). 

Workers in close proximity to the waste composting process could be exposed to bioaerosols between 10 and 1,000 times greater than in ambient air. Repeated inhalation in large concentrations can lead to the development of asthma or extrinsic allergic alveolitis as a result, bioaerosols are defined by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) 2002 as hazardous to health. Regulation 7(1) requires that exposure is therefore prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled. 

A risk assessment should be carried out in all workplaces where there is risk of exposure and respiratory protective equipment (RPE) should be worn by anyone within 30 metres of bioaerosols to avoid exposure when shredding, turning, screening or moving composting material. 

Suitable levels of respiratory protection include Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) such as the Scott Safety Tornado. 

This removes airborne contaminants such as particle, organic and inorganic gases from the environment and reduces burden on the lungs by providing powered air throughout a worker’s shift. 

Half masks and filters such as the Scott Safety P3 filter with Profile Half Mask may also be appropriate in cases where exposure is temporary or limited.

Respiratory protection should also be worn in workplace environments where wood dust is present. Wood recycling plants and other sites where wood is cut or stored are high risk environments for exposure to wood dust. 

Breathing in these particles can cause serious health problems including asthma and cancer of the nose. Settled dust also contains fine particles that are most likely to damage the lungs. The Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) for wood dust is 5mg/m3. 

This is a limit that must not be exceeded over an eight hour working day. However, exposure should be reduced to as low as ‘reasonably practicable’ with the use of RPE. 

Confined spaces

Maintaining the UK’s waste transport and storage network often means that workers are required to carry out jobs in confined spaces. This is defined as any enclosed space where there is a risk of death or serious injury from hazardous substances or dangerous conditions. 

Some confined spaces are easy to identify, such as storage tanks, silos, drains and sewers, all of which have limited openings. However, others may be less obvious but can be equally dangerous, such as combustion chambers or unventilated rooms. 

Confined space fatalities can occur when an individual is unable to recognise the confined space and its dangers or to employ adequate systems for safe working. 

The Confined Spaces Regulations (1997) state that employers have a legal duty to ensure that a safe system of work is implemented and realistic training provided to those working in confined spaces. 

Accidents are not planned events, but plans can be prepared in advance to manage them should they occur.  

Risk assessments are mandatory to warrant a safe system of work and plans can be written to address high risk areas. 

Confined spaces offer a variety of potential hazards. Access is usually limited, they are often poorly ventilated and not only can they contain combustible gases and other harmful substances, but escape or rescue from them can be difficult. 

Workers face potential dangers including exposure to toxic gases or vapours which can poison or suffocate. Oxygen deficiency is also a major hazard and will initially cause drowsiness. It can also lead to euphoria, preventing the victim from realising the dangers before it’s too late. 

Dangers can also arise in confined spaces because of the build up of flammable gases or vapours that can burn or explode, residues left in tanks, liquids or solids that can suddenly fill the space which would result in suffocation and an increase in temperatures. 

Respiratory protection including airline equipment and self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) such as the ProPak-i provides the required level of high specification protection to keep workers safe in these hazardous environments.  

Testing the atmosphere

It is essential that the atmosphere is tested before entering any confined area and monitored throughout any operation using suitable gas detection instruments. 

Scott Safety’s portable gas monitors, Protégé and Protégé ZM enable continuous monitoring and assessment of levels of hazardous gases present in the atmosphere including carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphide. 

Even if the atmosphere is deemed to be safe, an escape set, such as the ELSA, must be provided in case the situation deteriorates and the atmosphere becomes irrespirable. 

Anyone entering a confined space should also be supported by an observer equipped with a harness, lifeline and protective equipment, ready to react in case of emergency. 

Operatives need to be trained and protected against the potential hazards created by handling and processing waste. 

This will reduce the number of injuries and accidents recorded each year and ensure that the industry remains a safe and attractive prospect for industry workers. 


- Scott Safety is a specialist in the design, manufacture and supply of personal and respiratory protective equipment. 

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