Health and safety in the Waste and Resource Management sector remains an important risk to consider and manage for all involved in the sector.  This article explores where we are currently up to and what are some of the future challenges for waste management, recycling and transport companies.

The Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum’s (WISH) bi-annual conference took place at the RWM Lets Recycle Live Conference at the Birmingham NEC in September. WISH is a forum made up of key representatives from across the sector (including the Health and Safety Executive, trade associations, professional associations, trade unions, recycling organisations and national and local government bodies involved in waste and recycling) and which aims to identify, devise and promote activities to improve industry health and safety standards.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) view

The WISH conference provided an interesting update from the HSE as to where they see health and safety in the waste sector. The HSE have confirmed that they continue to see the sector as being high risk.  Because of this, the HSE intend to concentrate inspection resource in the sector and plan to carry out a minimum of 500 inspections from October 2022 to March 2023.  The last time the HSE carried out similar inspections in the sector, they found 38% of companies visited were in breach of health and safety regulations and they served 154 statutory notices requiring improvement.  These focused firstly on machinery and secondly around transport. 

The HSE acknowledged that safety in the sector is improving, but there is still round an eight fatal accident per year average and there are still far too many serious accidents in the industry which are caused by avoidable reasons and risks that are well known.  The HSE’s view is that frequently management are letting people devise their own solutions to health and safety problems, which is not acceptable.

The HSE has recently published its latest 10-year strategy.  Two of the key themes from this strategy which apply equally to the waste and recycling sector are:

  • Those who create risk around safety must manage it; and
  • a focus on ill health including mental health.

The HSE acknowledge that there are wider changes in the world which are having and will have a large impact on the sector and that the sector must ensure that it has the skills and competence to cope. As examples:

  • The Government’s target for net zero by 2050 - this will inevitably effect how waste is handled given the Government initiatives to recycle more (for example, by making food waste collections mandatory and introducing a plastic packaging tax) and the move to electric vehicles, which will hugely increase the number of batteries that will need to be recycled.
  • New technology and innovation – the HSE’s view is that technology such as anaerobic digestion will increase but that they believe energy from waste may fall out of favour. The HSE says it is supportive of innovation but its role is to enable the industry to innovate safely. The changes in technology will lead to a change in risk profile with some risks increasing such as the chemical recycling of plastics and some risks decreasing such as separation of waste streams leading to less sorting and increasing camera systems leading to less vehicle collisions.

The HSE made it clear that the industry must own the risks it creates and must manage the health and safety challenges that innovation will bring.

Future challenges

The sector faces a number of challenges in the future and WISH will be focussing on the following streams:

  • Healthier workplaces - guidance around bioaerosols is to be published soon. Guidance around topics such as mental health, hand hygiene, gastro illness and MSDs is also being considered.
  • Worker engagement and leadership - there are already two tools available to assist organisations with worker engagement and with leadership which focus on how organisations can assess style and tips for improvement.
  • Safer workplaces – WISH responds to changes in the industry as they happen. Additional guidance around wall safety containment has already been published following a sad fatal accident in a Birmingham recycling plant (due to go to trial in October 2022). Additional guidance has also been produced in relation to people who sleep in bins (given the cost-of-living crisis), fire and particularly around the disposal of lithium batteries.  Guidance around situational awareness when collecting waste is also in the pipeline.
  • Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) - WISH has produced a pocket guide and an online platform aimed to make health and safety simpler for SMEs. WISH acknowledge that it can be difficult to engage with SMEs and it is often that SMEs are uninformed about the risks and how to deal with them, rather than unwilling to do so.
  • Competence – it is anticipated that the number of workers in the sector will increase from around 130,000 to 500,000 in the next 10 to 15 years. The sector is concerned about it makes itself attractive to new employees and how to ensure that it has the necessary skills.

Our dedicated Waste and Resource Management team are advising waste management, recycling and transport companies on health and safety, environmental and commercial matters all over the UK. If you need any help, support or advice around any health and safety issues, please contact our sector specialist Louise Mansfield, Legal Director.

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