Reducing industrial accidents in waste processing

Written by: Mark Smith | Published:

Operators of balers, conveyors and other waste processing plant and equipment often haven't been trained properly and this sometimes results in inefficiencies, reduced throughput and increased plant breakdown. More worryingly is potential health and safety breeches that might result in accidents if proper procedures are ignored. Mark Smith, technical director at Middleton Engineering, which has been working in this sector for the past 30 years, believes better planning; training and maintenance may hold the answers.

While the UK's waste management industry is regulated by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities, the HSE cannot prevent accidents or misuse of equipment - people are fallible. Despite waste processing systems relying on sophisticated technology, human intervention is required for control, regulation, operation, cleaning and maintenance.

Waste and recycling remains one of Britain's highest-risk industries.According to the HSE, in 2013/14 just 0.5% of the UK's workforce was in the waste management sector, yet it accounted for 2.6% of reported injuries and an unacceptable 2.2% of fatalities.

Injuries to employees in waste and recycling:

Type of incident \ year










Major Injury





Over Three Day Injury





*includes one employee crushed in a baler, and one member of the public crushed by a mobile compactor.

**includes two employees, two self-employed workers and one member of the public

After working in the industry for 30 years we know what best practice looks like and have identified five ways we believe operator safety can be improved: lack of designated machine space and access; use of obsolete machinery; lack of training and poor maintenance/

servicing. Planning to avoid these five factors is mostly down to common sense, but these areas are often overlooked, even by larger organisations.

Sufficient space with easy access

A well-designed site layout is crucial. Squeezing in a baler might save on floor space, but it will make processing inefficient and could lead to inappropriate or unsafe loading. Space should be allocated for storage and vehicle movements, plus access to operating, cleaning, maintaining and servicing the equipment. A good supplier will conduct a site survey and plan ahead to avoid costly mistakes in site layout, ensuring a safer and more efficient environment.

Machinery that complies with latest UK safety standards

Balers play an essential role in waste recycling, but, like any heavy plant, are potentially dangerous. A new baler should comply with the latest safety standards, but in reality in-built safety systems will vary and some imported machines may fall below the requirements for protective guards and safe access, depending where and when they were made.

Age is another factor: balers are built to last and it is not uncommon to see our 20-year-old machines still going strong. However, in that time, safety standards will have changed, and so we have to work hard to ensure all refurbished machinery complies with the very latest safety standards. Indeed all companies sourcing second-hand balers need to ensure their machines have been upgraded and refurbished to comply with UK standards before selling them on, to avoid risks of breakdowns and potentially dangerous accidents.

Capacity is another potential risk factor: all too often balers are underpowered or overloaded because requirements have changed. The consequence of these factors is repeated malfunctions and operator interventions to rectify jams. Frustration, poor operation and possibly dangerous short cuts may result.

Training to ensure safe, optimal performance

The difference between a trained or untrained person using a baler is that each individual reacts differently in a pressurised situation, depending on their perception of risk, their personality and their previous experience. Only trained and experienced operators who are better equipped to manage a potentially hazardous working environment, should be allowed to operate heavy machinery.

Middleton's engineers have heard of all sorts of high-risk behaviour on sites, such as individuals operating a baler on their own with no secure backup in case of accident and operators opening electrical cabinets and pressing buttons without knowing what the buttons are for.

While the main focus is frequently on the baler itself, the way in which the baler is fed is important too. The quality of the conveyor, its feeding length and width is an important aspect of the operation, often not fully understood by an untrained operator.

Instructions on safe operational procedures, such as whether an operator is baling waste continuously or intermittently, are well documented. Proper instruction with periodic refresher training is a must. WISH (Waste Industry Safety and Health forum) provides excellent material on safe working practices and the baler supplier should provide proper training.

A high turnover of staff or contractors is an industry-wide issue that can result in the loss of experience, insight and knowledge. Regular operators tell Middleton's engineers that they learn about their baler/conveyor's capabilities every day. However, if a new operator without sufficient training does not fully understand operational processes, or does not realise the consequences of his or her actions, the effectiveness of the whole plant may be jeopardised.

So why aren't operators requesting more or better training? Time and money is a factor, as well as pressure of work, a fear of criticism and a lack of confidence in a competitive job market. And why aren't managers asking for better staff retention measures and better training for their staff? Possibly because investment and development decisions tend to favour those which affect profits. It could also be because managers lack the insight and commitment over how knowledge management can benefit their business, or how a high turnover of staff can represent greater safety risks, or how much higher margins of error will cost the business.

As well as pressure on the bottom line, reducing headcount and using contractors to plug gaps caused by understaffing may be a false economy. Middleton Engineering suggests that machine operators' personal knowledge and insight can be shared with others through cross-functional teamwork, project debriefs, in-house training, internal presentations, mentoring, shadowing or secondments.

Our approach as a responsible manufacturer includes offering refresher training to all our customers as standard and to integrate refresher training across other services, as a core part of what we do. Refresher training for operators is not only cost effective, resulting in fewer issues, but helps to instil safe procedures in a safe environment with competent staff working under proper supervision. Our new initiative in 2015 is offering time with our engineers at the time of servicing to ensure all our customers have ample opportunities to train all new staff.

Regular maintenance and servicing

Many firms rely on individuals to keep their baling systems in robust working order. Pressure of work, office politics, risk avoidance and fear of criticism can hinder an individual's best intentions. Poor cleaning and maintenance can also be a huge issue as operators may think that heavy machinery does not need much attention. Apart from sophisticated electrical systems, there are places which can become jammed. Regular maintenance identifies potential hazards before they cause problems.

If the earlier statistics on injuries and fatalities fail to provoke action to rectify unsafe working practices and ensure the safety of operators, it is worth remembering that lost working days and industrial compensation are costly. There were 25 waste and recycling prosecution cases brought by the HSE and local authorities last year. Most resulted in guilty verdicts, where the average fine per case was about £59,500 - not to mention damage caused to an organisation's hard-earned reputation. It is in everyone's best interests to work together to drive down work-related injuries.

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