The green economy was chugging along at the Nevada paper recycling plant that morning in June 2012, feeding an oversized mound of waste toward a conveyor belt. But when the machine got jammed, the worker who tried to unclog it suddenly got flattened by a 2.5-ton mass of paper. A coworker rushed to extract him using a front-end loader, but, according to a government report, the worker died at the hospital two days later, smothered by the dead trees he had been tasked with salvaging.
The industries that pride themselves on being friends of the earth are often hostile to workers, according to new research on the safety conditions in recycling plants. Published by Massachusetts Council for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), National COSH, and other advocacy groups, the analysis of the industry shows that despite the green sector’s clean, progressive image, workers remain imperiled by old-school industrial hazards. Workers face intense stress, dangerous machinery and inadequate safeguards, while toiling in strenuous positions amid constant toxic exposures.
Often the sorting of recyclables requires directly handling hazardous materials and improperly disposed waste, such as plastic bags that accumulate and cause potentially deadly clogs in machines. Some cities allow dumping of “mixed” trash, leaving workers to separate metal cans from organic waste, or battery fluid from old meatloaf (cities could prevent such dangers through the slight inconvenience of simply requiring people to separate garbage beforehand).
Though they might lack proper safety training or protective gear, workers might routinely encounter used syringes, glass shards, noxious oil residue, or the odd squirrel.
In MassCOSH’s announcement of the report, former Boston recycling worker Mirna Santizo recalled, “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.” Research shows composting and recycling workers also suffer “exposures and illnesses associated with inhaling endotoxins” emitted by rotting waste.
Just as sanitation workers have historically suffered both extreme labor abuses and job hazards, recycling workers’ physical insecurity is aggravated by economic vulnerability, as workplaces often lack labor protections and adequate staffing. One worker told researchers, “When I started working a sorter over 10 years ago, they had eight people on a sorting line, now there are only four, but the company expects us to work as if there are eight people on the line.” Some workers have reported “constant pressure from supervisors to work fast so as to not get fired.”
According to federal statistics, “The rate of nonfatal injury incidents in [recycling facilities] was 8.5 per 100 workers in 2012. This is much higher than the rate for all industries (3.5 per 100 workers) higher than the average for all waste management and remediation services (5.1 per 100 workers).”