Recycling Workers Exposed to Safety Failures, Needles, High Injury Rates

June 23, 2015

For Immediate Release

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, Executive Director, MassCOSH

Report: Recycling Workers Exposed to Safety Failures, Needles, High Injury Rates

17 fatalities nation-wide in a two-year period; cities have unique opportunity to protect workers who protect the planet

6/23/2015 BOSTON–       A new report released by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health (MassCOSH), environmental, labor, and community rights groups illustrates how sorting recyclable materials can be a high-risk occupation, with workers regularly exposed to used needles, dead animal carcasses, hazardous chemicals as well as a large amount of heavy machinery, with very few safeguards to protect them. According to the report, Safe & Sustainable Recycling: Protecting Workers who Protect the Planet, Recycling workers are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker.
On June 15, a Florida man was crushed to death in a cardboard compactor while working at a recycling plant. This past April, 13 recycling workers in Vermont were hospitalized after being exposed to pepper spray placed in a recycling bin. Last November, a recycling worker in New Bedford was struck and killed by a flatbed truck in the parking lot.
Nationally, seventeen recycling workers died on the job between 2011 and 2013. By ensuring health and safety compliance across the industry, the report authors say cities can create good and safe recycling jobs. In addition to MassCOSH, report authors include the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Partnership for Working Families and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
Additional key findings from the report include:

  • Workers in recycling sorting facilities are frequently exposed to extreme conditions and dangerous situations, such as temperature extremes and working with heavy machinery;
  • Recycling workers are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker;
  • Many waste and recycling companies rely heavily on temporary labor, who tend to be paid less and are more reluctant to raise health and safety concerns; 

According to a 2013 Northeast Recycling Council report, recycling, reuse, and manufacturing based on recycled feed stocks directly support more than 2,000 businesses in Massachusetts with an estimated 14,000 jobs in the state, maintain a payroll of nearly $500 million, and bring in annual revenues of $3.2 billion. However, workers at the front lines who sort these materials are often low-wage, treated poorly, and exposed to dangerous hazards.
For twelve years, Mirna Santizo worked at Casella, which sorts the recyclables for the City of Boston and surrounding communities. 
“We sorted through the bins full of garbage,” said Santizo, who no longer works for the company after suffering a stroke on the job in 2013. “We would find lots of glass, and needles. Sometimes workers are punctured and hurt from the needles. We would find dead animals in the bins and it really stinks. It’s also very hot, there isn’t much air [circulation].”
For this work, Santizo earned just $8.75 per hour and MassCOSH has found that the temp workers, who sometimes can be the majority of a facility’s workforce, can earn even less.
“This report confirms the concerns we have expressed to city leadership about the working conditions for the recycling workers who sort Boston’s recyclables,” said MassCOSH Labor Environment Coordinator and report co-author Tolle Graham. “We think it’s important for Boston to re-examine its’ contract for receiving and sorting recyclables to make sure that it rewards contractors in the bidding process who have strong health and safety records and practices, applies the City’s Living Wage Ordinance to those workers, and discourages the use of temporary labor.”
Recycling is widely seen as a prime climate action opportunity. Recycling has the potential to reduce climate pollution equivalent to shutting down one-fifth of U.S. coal power plants, while sustaining a total of 2.3 million jobs across the country. That is more than 10 times the number of jobs (per tonnage of waste) than is presently supported through waste incineration and landfills.
“Environmental advocates are happy to see the Walsh administration has included a commitment to Zero Waste planning in Boston’s revised Climate Action Plan,” said Alex Papali, an organizer with Clean Water Action and co-coordinator of the Boston Recycling Coalition. “In order to reach Zero Waste, all stakeholders need to be at the table, and we know that ensuring good local recycling jobs provides an incentive for communities with low recycling rates to participate.”
To protect workers that sustain a rapidly growing recycling industry, the authors of the report recommend that city governments evaluate the health and safety records of recycling companies and require these companies to have comprehensive worker safety programs. The report also recommends stronger compliance with federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and end the use of temporary workers in the recycling sector. Finally, strong community education programs that lead to greater household separation of waste can minimize dangerous contaminants entering the recycling stream.

The report - Safe & Sustainable Recycling - concludes that it is critical for civic leaders to protect recycling workers by creating safeguards in municipal recycling contracts.
Click here to review the report.