Oct. 27, 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its 2015 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. This report showed a slight increase in the fatality rate over 2014 for the refuse and recyclable material collectors occupation.

Feb. 15, 2017, the National Safety Council’s (NSC’s) projection that highway fatalities increased 6 percent in 2016 is a call to action for the traffic safety community. While the data are preliminary and will differ from final federal data, the trend is clear: After years of progress reducing the frequency of collisions, highway fatalities still are increasing.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of traffic collisions are related to driver decision-making errors. The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) continues to hear from state agencies that the three predominant factors contributing to traffic deaths are lack of seat belt use, DUI and excessive speed. Additionally, driver distraction and our society’s addiction to electronic devices such as smartphones likely are playing roles in the increase in fatalities.

Availability bias

These are the kinds of reports and data that create what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to in his book Thinking Fast and Slow as “availability bias.”

What this means is that waste and recycling industry leaders will make decisions based on the information “most readily available,” even when it’s not specific to what they are trying to change. NHTSA’s report examined collision data from the entire motoring public, which includes passenger vehicles that are significantly more maneuverable than commercial motor vehicles (CMVs).

To make actionable and sustainable changes to their processes to eliminate collisions, they must use collision data specific to the type of vehicle and the environments in which their drivers work. Otherwise their cognitive bias to the available data might lead them to decision errors that will have a negative impact on the reductions and eliminations they are trying to achieve.

Oct. 20, 2016, I hosted a webinar titled “Reducing Collisions – Going Beyond Distracted Driving.” Joining me was Del Lisk, senior vice president for safety at Lytx, and Scott Franklin, area safety manager for Waste Management.

We spoke explicitly to data that Lytx compiled reviewing its on-board collision videos from 2011 to 2016 that were installed in our industry CMVs. We focused on refuse and recyclables collectors to identify the causal factors of vehicle collisions that will have an impact on the 2015 BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

The goal of the webinar was to identify the frequency and severity of “preventable” collisions to help industry leaders develop and prioritize strategies to address the root causes. NSC defines preventable collisions as those in which “the driver failed to do everything that they reasonably could have done to avoid the collision.”

Furthering understanding

The webinar brought participants a greater understanding of the following questions:

What percentage of waste industry collisions are preventable? The perception taken from NHTSA’s report is that 94 percent of collisions are preventable, because a driver’s poor decision-making is the last failure in the causal chain of events leading up to the crash. The fact is, NHTSA, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports do not assign preventability to collisions. According to research by the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and Lytx, 71 percent of collisions were preventable.

Which preventable collisions are most severe? Behavioral psychologist Thomas R. Krause’s research notes that over the past decade a startling data pattern has emerged in which the frequency rate of collisions and injuries have declined, but the severity rate of serious injuries and fatalities has increased. This pattern is in conflict with a long-standing safety assumption that safety pioneer H. W. Heinrich established in his 1931 book. Heinrich’s Law states that for every 300 accidents that cause no injuries, 29 accidents cause minor injuries and one accident causes a major injury or fatality.

Krause’s recent findings are evidenced in NSC and Lytx’s results. Frequency is going down, but severity is trending upward. This mostly is because companies are providing better education and skills training for the most frequent causes of collisions:

  • Fixed objects and backing collisions made up 40 percent of the low-severity incidents, though high in frequency.
  • Rear-end collisions made up more than 20 percent of the preventable collisions. In light of their size and weight, these incidents usually are severe.

What are the most common causes of preventable collisions? One thing we learned in the webinar is that distractions come in many forms. Stratifying the data gave insight into other types of distractions that impact collision preventability.

Cellphone use is a more common factor in higher severity collisions. It was a factor in about 6 percent of all preventable collisions and in approximately 24 percent of collisions that were because of distractions. Seventy percent of preventable collisions are because of work-related distractions (route planning, handling paperwork, adjusting equipment) or driver attention to the wrong things (daydreaming, eating or drinking, grooming).

Addressing distracted driving

Refuse and recyclables collectors work long, hard days and nights in all environments and all weather conditions while under tight productivity schedules. This explains falling asleep/drowsy driving being responsible for 8 percent of the higher severity collisions.

Improved administrative controls, such as communication with sales, route planning, nutrition and shift scheduling are how leading companies are addressing the issue. Managing fatigue, hydration and heat illness prevention are other ways industry leaders are addressing the cause of these high-severity collisions as data have indicated these medical conditions underlay many behaviors drivers are exhibiting.

One advantage to being an NWRA member is access to our safety team. Many members have benefited from our ability to use their companies’ data to perform diagnostics that provide a roadmap for problem solving and process improvement.

In case you missed this webinar, NWRA has made it available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtSGFq81fgk. Share it with your colleagues to build a safety culture in your organization and within the industry.

The author is the national safety director for National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington. He can be contacted via email at ahargis@wasterecycling.org.