How is the waste and recycling sector dealing with coronavirus?

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Along with countless medical and care professionals, frontline staff in the waste and resource management industry are also identified as key workers. And, as the prime minister has unveiled a “conditional plan” to reopen society in the face of coronavirus, the waste sector has been adapting to the new normal for several months.

Safety Management caught up with Paul Stokes, head of safety, health, environment and quality (SHEQ) at FCC Environment, a waste management company headquartered in Northampton with 248 sites across the UK. We wanted to find out how FCC Environment, a British Safety Council’s Sword of Honour winner, has been handling the impact of the virus.

“FCC Environment delivers a range of vital waste and recycling services to local authorities up and down the country and it is critical that these services continue where possible,” says Paul.

“Working with our clients, we are focused on maintaining the kerbside collections of recycling and waste at this difficult time. In some areas, councils have opted to suspend bulky waste and garden waste collections so that resources can be focused on recycling and waste collections. And currently [at the time of writing] household waste recycling centres across the county remain closed. But we are monitoring the situation all the time as things are very fast moving.”

FCC refuse workers: staff have had to accommodate to challenging conditions during coronavirus

The Covid-19 crisis has meant that all FCC Environment staff have had to be open to changing services, stepping up to government guidance as it evolves. Paul says: “We are very aware within our business of both government guidance in general terms and the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) forum guidance which was published after a rapid consultation with the industry on 2 April.

“We are taking every practical step across our business to operate within the guidelines. But we have to be realistic. There is a global shortage of PPE and alcohol-based hand gels and sanitisers, for example. We’ve had to advise people how to make up their own solutions with detergents and other anti-bacterial products.”

FCC Environment’s workforce is following government guidelines on social distancing but Paul emphasises there are practical limits, and that’s just the reality of the crisis: “In practical terms, bin collections are a key critical service, people will not want their waste mounting up on the front of their drive or on the roads. We must continue to deliver this service for our clients and the population. We are taking every step we can to adapt to the new reality we face.”

Refuse workers face risks including handling bags that may contain tissues and waste touched by people infected with the coronavirus.

Local councils have sent guidance out to homes to advise people that if they are ill, they should be putting their waste in a different bag and then double bagging it, leaving it for 72 hours before putting it out for collection. “Moves like this mitigate the risk, of course,” he says. “Some councils are asking residents to spray their bin handles with cleaning fluid before displaying the bin for our crews to empty to try and reduce the spread of the infection, just as supermarkets are offering cleaning sprays for trolley handles in store.”

Heightened risk management has had an impact on every operation in the business, not just the bin collections.

At FCC Environment’s 24-hour waste processing facilities, shift handovers are now done over the phone. In the control rooms, strict social distancing practices are standard. When a truck arrives at a site full of waste, normally a signature is required; FCC is working with the Environment Agency to see how this practice can be amended to comply with the social distancing guidelines.

Not everyone is out on site. “Our business has responded well in terms of getting people who can work from home into the swing of it,” says Paul. He and his health and safety team have been supporting home workers with “friendly guidance” on issues such as home schooling, setting up workstations and taking breaks.

FCC is focusing on all aspects of home working that could be stressful for some people

“A lot of people will be anxious during these times, so we’re concentrating on all aspects of home working that could be stressful for some people. But we don’t want to inundate people, advice has got to be meaningful to them.”

The health and safety guidance issued by WISH has been welcomed. While business groups have been calling for more explicit guidance since the partial easing of the lockdown for workplaces was announced on 10 May, Paul says it has been important for the waste sector to work out themselves what they need to do: “SHEQ professionals have an important role to play in this epidemic. More than ever they must be an enabler and supporter of the tough operational decisions that need to be made by their operational colleagues.

“They must remain a critical friend, willing to compromise where possible and provide clarity where it is not — advising, guiding and influencing.

COVID-19 and waste management guidance from WISH here

British Safety Council Sword of Honour award scheme here



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