Handling recycling and waste is hurting janitors

Focus needs to be on human-centered work patterns, as well as equipment
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
By Kiran (Raj) Rajbhandary

Every day, millions of janitors compromise safety when handling garbage and recycled materials. The typical movement cycle involves lifting, bending, reaching and moving waste from receptacle, to transport carts, to dumpsters or to larger pick up containers.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) increases when the same parts of the body are used repeatedly, with few breaks or chances to rest. Highly repetitive tasks can lead to fatigue, tissue damage, and, eventually, to pain and discomfort. This can occur even if the level of force is low and the work postures are not very awkward. The MSD risk increases if the repetitive action also requires high force and/or an awkward posture.

This issue is made even more challenging in some cases with increasing waste stream segmentation-trash, capturing various recycling materials (paper, plastic, glass) and now organic waste, liquid and solid.

The Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis reported in their 2014-2018 strategic plan that MSDs in Canada are considered the most costly condition, estimated to be around $22 billion. The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada also found that in 2015, the reported number of lost time claims in Canada due to workplace injury amounted to 232, 629 cases and 852 deaths, and it’s believed many injuries go unreported every year. While the majority are in trades, transport and equipment operations, the second highest claim level involves service occupations. Of these claims, more injuries happen in the trunk of the body where the back is located.

Statistics out of the U.S. are also grim, with one million service workers suffering back injuries every year — the number one workplace safety problem. Shockingly, janitors are injured more frequently than police officers. In 2010, the California University System had 761 custodial incidents, resulting in U.S. $7.1 million direct costs. Trash and recycling material handling was the primary issue of concern.

A substantial share of injuries that occur on the job can be prevented. Circumstances associated with occupational injuries should contribute to creating preventive strategies and the development of superior methods and tools. Ideally, any MSD prevention initiative should transition from cost to savings. Focus always needs to be on human-centered work patterns, as well as equipment. This allows for a comprehensive look at return on investment (ROI) — what C-suite executives demand.

Overall, it comes down to design, regulations and value. Through the decades, receptacles have changed, but all have failed to fully address the basic problem — suction and vacuum. Gravity is not rocket science.

Getting the trash bag out of a receptacle is dangerous, especially if you must hold the can with one hand and lift the bag with the other. This reduces lifting power by 50 per cent and places the users in awkward ergonomic positions. We all have witnessed the antics of wrestling a trash bag from a receptacle — a potentially very dangerous action with serious injury consequences.

Regulations and requirements for thermoplastic receptacles have not changed substantively in decades. Requiring receptacles to be water tight was part of existing standards. People might want to store liquids, but a 23-gallon receptacle full of water is 194 pounds, hardly safe in terms of the slip and fall potential, let alone trying to move it.

Existing Class 21 thermoplastic container standards developed by NSF International—the worldwide developer of health standards and certification programs that help protect the world’s food, water, consumer products and environment—stated receptacles had to be watertight. However, in 2015, we argued that this inherently made receptacles for waste potentially dangerous for the user due to suction and vacuum. We also presented innovation that would ultimately help revise the Class 21 standards.

Last year, Statistics Canada reported that the number of workers aged 55 and older increased 22 per cent over the past five years, trumping the growth rate for younger workers nearly 20 times. Canada’s aging workforce in growing along with many people delaying retirement. Janitors and their successors are part of the lifeblood of any facility service organization. Providing safety improvements equals human sustainability. Now, that’s real ROI.

Raising the bar in any industry is a monumental challenge. With costs rising across labour, worker compensation and health insurance, the janitor versus trashcan issue is real. But with effort, the opportunity for janitors performing daily repetitive tasks has terrific upside — going home injury free.


Kiran (Raj) Rajbhandary is CEO and Co-founder of EZ Dump Commercial, Inc. an innovative design and engineering company based in Phoenix, Arizona. They are the creators of SmartcanMax™, a patented waste, recycling and linen receptacle offering. He can be reached through his company website at www.ezdumpcommercial.com

2 thoughts on “Handling recycling and waste is hurting janitors

  1. In my opinion, such work should be automated as much as possible so as not to injure employees. By transferring hard work to machines, we can preserve the health of many people. I myself have worked in this field for several years. And to be honest, what is written in the article is complete truth. Most of my employees had health problems.

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