Innovative solutions to improve pedestrian safety at waste and recycling centres.

With the waste and recycling sector reporting its first increase in fatal accidents in four years, now is the time to invest in safety.

The waste and recycling sector regularly places amongst the highest HSE figures for fatal and non-fatal workplace accidents. The nature of operations, with heavy equipment, workplace transport and industrial machinery constantly in use, provides numerous threats to safety.

Cause for concern

Thankfully, site safety has generally improved in recent years. However, 2022/23 saw six fatal accidents, the highest rate since 2017/18, and the first time an increase in fatalities has occurred in four years [1]. The accompanying HSE report noted that the sector's fatal accident rate is significantly higher than the all-industry rate; in fact, it is ten times higher. It is clear the industry remains very much in the spotlight regarding safety concerns, and a bulletin issued by the HSE in 2021 specifically targeted safety fears within the sector following multiple incidents involving wheeled shovel loaders. Indeed, of nine fatal accidents reported over four years involving the equipment, six were in the waste and recycling sector [2].

Contact with moving machinery is an all-too-common cause of severe and fatal accidents across all sectors, and being struck by a moving vehicle and being struck by a moving object are repeatedly the second and third most common causes of fatal accidents. Most accidents are avoidable, so companies must take further safety measures to keep people safe. The wide range of workplace transport on a recycling site is essential to operations, and reducing vehicle movement is not always possible, so the best way to mitigate serious accidents is to put preventative measures in place that improve overall site safety.

Safety technology

Embracing safety technology allows businesses to protect workers and visitors without disrupting operations. High-risk sites should have robust access controls where every person is accounted for and issued with protective personal equipment (PPE) on entry. Standard PPE, including hard hats and work boots, are commonly used, but other intelligent solutions can be a game changer regarding accident protection. Proximity warning systems work by opening a line of communication between vehicle operators and pedestrians. Pedestrians wear small tags, and antennas are fitted to each vehicle. The system creates an invisible detection zone around the vehicle, which interacts with the pedestrian tags and delivers an audio-visual alarm when activated to alert operators and pedestrians of the presence of danger. This system has proven to be highly effective on many waste and recycling and other industrial sites. It works particularly well in areas where access is highly restricted and controlled, but there are occasions when tagging is not a viable option.

When tagging is not possible or simply not desired, more traditional methods are used to achieve segregation and improve visibility. Barriers, floor markings, signage, cones, and controlled crossings are all commonly used and can be very effective, but accidents still happen too often. Technology can once again play a part here. Safety signage is a requirement, but it is a passive measure that relies on people looking, understanding, and acknowledging the messaging. Sign clutter, where multiple signs warn of various hazards in one area, lose impact and can result in confusion. For workers who see the same signage several times daily, sign blindness can take hold, resulting in low awareness and complacency. Finding new and innovative ways to grab the attention and prompt individuals to stop dangerous activity can be challenging but is possible.

Signage that can interact with vehicles to raise the alarm are an excellent solution. Vehicle-activated signs communicate with approaching workplace transport through an antenna fitted to the vehicle. As the vehicle approaches, the sign (which may not have been observed previously) automatically illuminates and flashes, quickly drawing the eye. This simple solution creates a highly visual prompt that immediately raises awareness to everybody sharing the same space as any approaching vehicles.

In high-risk work sites such as waste and recycling centres, removing all forms of danger is impossible. However, it is possible to proactively address known hazards and minimise risk by genuinely committing to safety and investing in innovative ways to achieve this. Taking real action to protect everyone on site is an employer's first responsibility, and doing so can be the difference between life and death.