Recycling workers are at high risk of injury and illness in California,” says Valeria Velazquez, Coordinator of Public Programs at UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program. Dirty syringes, asbestos, lead, rat feces, fire arms, and even a grenade are just a few of the nasty surprises in recycling waste that Velazquez became aware of during LOHP’s training campaign designed to improve the safety of recycling workers in Alameda County.
Funded by a federal grant from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Suzanne Teran, Valeria Velazquez and Leonor Dionne from LOHP trained over 150 workers from four recycling facilities in partnership with International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 6.
“You name it, these workers probably face it,” says Velazquez. Although recycling plants contain a wide range of hazardous equipment and materials, LOHP’s team and Agustin Ramirez, their ILWU collaborator, narrowed their focus to three of the most severe: the inhalation of dust and other harmful particles in the air, ergonomic issues stemming from long periods of standing and sorting recyclable materials on the conveyer belt, and blood borne pathogens from cuts or needle prick injuries.
Materials were developed in English and Spanish, and the courses were presented in Spanish.
“For every training, there was an intentional effort to plan for action using the information we imparted,” says Velazquez. For example, at each of the nine sessions, workers said conveyer belt speed was a top safety issue. “If it’s too fast, they can’t see what they’re sorting through and more likely to touch something hazardous,” explains Velazquez. After training with LOHP and ILWU, Velazquez received feedback that workers stepped up their use of the conveyer’s emergency stop button to prevent injury. “Companies have been responsive and have moved immediately to discuss solutions,” added Velazquez.
Their goal is to leverage their training investment with a “train the trainer” program. With funding to continue their training for another year, LOHP and ILWU plan to coach twenty-five employees to become leaders in health and safety, engaging coworkers and participating on committees.
Californians are known to do their part in keeping recyclable waste out of landfills. “We have embraced recycling as a community that cares about the earth, but people assume the work is done by sorting machines and don’t see the human face,” noted Velazquez. “As a result of this campaign, I think we are beginning to not only associate environmental benefits with recycling, but also the issues impacting vulnerable workers.”
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