Top 5 Health and Safety Risks Faced by Recycling Workers

Recycling workers, especially sorters, play a crucial role in the quality of feedstock, ultimately affecting marketplace values and the profits businesses are able to generate from their recyclable commodities. While sorting and processing technologies have come a long way, they cannot replace the dexterity and decision-making capabilities of human beings.

Workers are confronted by many hazards in sorting and processing facilities, such as material recovery facilities (MRFs), on a daily basis. To keep their waste and recycling employees safe and prevent costly accidents and workplace tragedies, recycling facility operators should understand the common risks associated with handling unpredictable waste streams.

Read on to learn more about the top 5 health and safety risks faced by recycling workers.

1: Exposure to harmful chemical and biological substances

Even if municipalities have implemented multi-bin separation systems and distributed educational materials, workers must contend with consumer ignorance and misconceptions about the recycling process and what is actually recyclable. Exposure risks are associated with many sources that include:

  • Used hypodermic needles.
  • Sharp objects, such as broken glass, nails, sharp metal, and wood shards.
  • Industrial and household chemicals, including motor oil, mercury containing thermometers, solvents, and batteries.
  • Dead and rotting animals, such as squirrels, cats, and dogs that climbed into containers looking for food and got stuck.
  • Biohazards, such as rotting food waste, used diapers, animal feces, and disease-causing pathogens.

The risk of exposure is further increased by fast conveyor belts and material quotas that necessitate quick identification of hazardous materials from recyclable goods.

2: Moving vehicles and improperly secured material bales

Because materials can weigh in excess of one ton, industrial vehicles, such as forklifts, front-end loaders, and trucks, are needed to transport waste and recyclables, putting workers at risk of being struck or run over. Heavy material bales are also capable of severely injuring or crushing workers if they are improperly stored and secured.

3: Moving machinery: compactors, conveyor belts, and sorting machinery

Most recycling equipment requires cleaning, servicing, adjustments, or some other sort of general maintenance to maintain efficient processing and sorting activities. If proper lockout-tagout procedures aren’t implemented when workers must service or unjam equipment, employees could face amputations or fatal crushing injuries. Lock and tag procedures are a safety measure used to ensure dangerous machines are properly shut off and cannot restart before servicing is complete.

4: Respiratory hazards: dust and airborne contaminants

Waste and recyclable materials generate a lot of dust that can have serious health consequences. This dust can contain micro-particles of plastics, glass, biohazards, toxic substances such as asbestos or silica, and other respiratory irritants. Even animal feces, rotting food, and other organic waste can become airborne in the form of “bioaerosols”. Masks and proper ventilation can easily reduce the health risks associated with airborne toxins.

5: Awkward positions and repetitive motion injuries

Waste and recyclables workers must often twist, reach, jump, and stoop to sort materials on fast-paced conveyor belts with fixed widths and heights. Because sorters often stand bent forward for hours at a time using recurrent motions, they can suffer from repetitive stress injuries of the back, shoulder, knees, hands, and fingers.

If you own or operate a material recovery facility or run a business recycling program and would like to mitigate the risks posed to your waste and recycling workers, contact our experts at Berg Mill Supply! We offer value-added consulting services to optimize your recycling operations. Berg Mill can even handle and sell your recyclables if you’d like to focus on your core business operations instead.