Recology refuse collection truck.

Solid waste collectors had 34 reported workplace fatalities in 2021, down from 38 in 2020. | Sundry Photography/Shutterstock

Refuse and recyclable material collectors had the seventh-deadliest job in the U.S. in 2021, an improvement over the previous year’s sixth place.

According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, refuse and recyclable material collectors had a fatal injury rate of 27.9 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, down from 33.1 in 2020.

That decrease is consistent with the Solid Waste Association of North America’s (SWANA) 2021 report and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s 2021 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, which reported historically low injury and illness rates for collection, landfill and MRF workers.

“Although we are pleased by the industry’s improvement last year, being the seventh deadliest occupation in the United States is nothing to brag about,” David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO said in a press release.

Breaking the data down by category, solid waste collectors had 34 reported workplace fatalities in 2021, down from 38 in 2020. The high was 57 in 2018. There were four reported fatalities among workers at MRFs in 2021, the same as the previous year.

SWANA pointed out a discrepancy in solid waste landfill worker fatalities. There were no such fatalities reported in 2021 by the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but SWANA “is aware of at least five collection and other types of workers who died at landfills last year,” the press release noted.

So far, SWANA’s data for 2022 indicates a return to higher levels of worker fatalities, the press release stated, suggesting that the 2021 decrease might be a pandemic-related aberration.

Suzanne Sturgeon, SWANA’s National Safety Committee chair and SCS engineers safety manager, said there’s still work to do to get waste workers out of the top 10 most dangerous list.

“From my perspective, situational awareness is the key element to getting our workers home to their families unharmed,” Sturgeon added. “This, followed by good communication by decision-makers with those who work in the field, is essential to their understanding of expectations for how they conduct themselves while working.”

Overall, there was an 8.9% increase in U.S. fatal work injuries in 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tallied 4,764 in 2020 and 5,190 in 2021. That’s a rate of 3.6 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, the highest annual rate since 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted. In 2019 that rate was 3.5 and in 2020 it was 3.4.

Transportation incidents were the most common type of fatal event in 2021, with the 1,982 fatal injuries in that category accounting for 38.2% of all work related fatalities for the year.

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