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Recycling workers exposed to sharps danger

July 15, 2015

Healthcare workers are aware that disposing of sharps safely is essential for reducing the number of injuries that occur in hospitals. However, a new study has shown that many other professionals could be at risk if sharps safety procedures are not properly adhered to.

Researchers at the University of Illinois School of Public Health found that recycling work is unnecessarily hazardous to workers’ health and safety. It found that 17 recycling workers died on the job in the US between 2011 to 2013. 

In fact, recycling workers are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker, with exposure to hypodermic needles being a particular risk.

According to the authors of the study, health and safety compliance needs to be assured across the industry to create good and safe recycling jobs. They offer a number of recommendations about how individual cities can make sure their recycling workers are protected.

"Recycling is the right thing to do, but we have to do it the right way," said Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. "That means educating and empowering recycling workers, and using proven prevention strategies which we know will reduce exposure to hazardous conditions. That’s how we can avoid tragedies like the death of a recycling worker just last week in Florida.”

Unsafe working conditions are responsible for the vast majority of injuries occurring with recycling workers. The 'Safe & Sustainable Recycling: Protecting Workers who Protect the Planet' report found that heavy machinery and exposure to hazardous items such as hypodermic needles and toxic chemicals were making the job risky.

Although many waste and recycling companies rely heavily on temporary workers, a large number do not put the protocol in place to ensure that they are safe and there is a risk that these workers will be less informed about their legal right to a safe and healthy workplace.

“People put dangerous stuff in recycling bins,” said Mirna Santizo, who worked at a Casella recycling facility for 12 years, sorting recycling from Boston and other cities. “We found lots of broken glass and needles. Sometimes workers were punctured and hurt from the needles.”

Monica Wilson of GAIA, who contributed to the report, said there need to be investment made to protect the lives and livelihoods of workers whose daily efforts are reducing pollution, conserving precious resources, and mitigating climate change.

In order to do this, city governments need to evaluate the health and safety records of recycling companies and require them to each have worker safety programs, according to the report. 

In addition, cities should also encourage the recycling industry to no longer use temporary workers and enact strong community education programs for greater household separation of waste to minimize dangerous contaminants entering the recycling stream.

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