The UK’s waste treatment and recycling industry is breaking workplace injury records. Its workers have double the injury risk of building workers. The Health and Safety Executive – the UK’s workplace safety inspection authority – is campaigning to change matters. Trade unions want a crackdown on rule-dodging employers.

Mark Wright was "a big soft teddy bear of a man", according to his mother, Dorothy. And he was worried about safety standards at the recycling plant where he worked at Saltney in North Wales.

On 12 April 2005 he was told by his boss to put more than 3 500 aerosol cans into a mechanical crusher. They exploded and caught fire, sealing a door and trapping Mark inside. When he was freed, he walked to an ambulance before collapsing with 90 per cent burns.

"In the one act of kindness shown to us, the hospital kept our son on a life support system long enough for us to drive the five hours needed to be there to say our goodbyes," said Dorothy. "He was 37 years old. He had been with his wife since he was 19 and had two children whom he just adored."

Since their son’s untimely death, Dorothy and her husband, Douglas, have been fighting for justice. Their long and ultimately frustrating struggle has helped expose the serious dangers of working in the burgeoning waste recycling business in the UK. It has also highlighted deep flaws in the way the country’s judicial system handles health and safety at work.

The Crown Prosecution Service initially decided that there was not enough evidence to charge the company, Deeside Metal, or any of its managers with manslaughter. Then after an inquest into the death in 2009, it announced that it was pursuing a charge of manslaughter against the general manager, Robert Roberts.

But this was rejected by a trial judge as an "abuse of process" because it was too long after the accident. Roberts was left to face a lesser charge of breaching health and safety legislation, to which he pleaded guilty and was fined £10 000 (12 000 euros) by Caernarfon Crown Court in December 2010.

At the same time, Deeside Metal was fined £100 000 for breaking health and safety law. Deeside Metal then appealed against its fine, and in December 2011 it was halved by the Court of Appeal. The company from which the aerosol cans had come, Jeyes, was also fined.

The Wrights received an apology from the Crown Prosecution Service for the way the case was mishandled, but the whole experience has left Dorothy deeply disillusioned. She told HesaMag that she has lost all faith in the police, the justice system, and the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE). "I live with an ever present feeling of betrayal and anger at a country that has treated my son as just another disposable business commodity," she said.

"Without vigorous policing and inspection of recycling premises, coupled with legal action proportionate to the crime of taking a life – including the accountability of individual directors – sadly I cannot foresee a time when employers in the recycling industry will not risk workers’ lives for profit. It is one of the most dangerous industries in Britain."

A death rate 16 times higher than average

There is no doubt that recycling waste in the UK is a relatively hazardous occupation. In the last nine years, official figures show that 83 workers have been killed, often by moving vehicles or machinery. In 2012-13 twelve people died, which according to HSE is 16 times higher than the average for all UK industries.

More than 3 000 recycling and waste workers are injured every year, a rate four times higher than the average for all industries. HSE has estimated that more than one in 20 recycling workers suffer ill health or injury because of their jobs. This is significantly higher than other reputedly dangerous trades like farming, forestry and fishing, and nearly twice as high as in construction and manufacturing.

At least 140 000 people work in the waste and recycling industry, making up less than one per cent of the UK’s working population. But the industry accounts for nearly three per cent of all reported injuries to employees (see Graph 1). The industry grew by almost five per cent between 2012 and 2013, as central and local government try to recycle more of the 75 million tonnes of waste produced every year in order to meet European targets to cut the amounts dumped as landfill.

Recycling workers also face insidious long-term risks from the dust, toxic metals and infections to which they can be exposed. A 2012 study by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh pointed out that current safety limits for dust failed to protect workers. "Exposures to dust at many waste-handling sites are likely to give rise to significantly increased risks of chronic respiratory illness," it concluded.

Exposures to lead, mercury and other hazardous metals at scrap metal yards and electrical waste recycling facilities "may be sufficient to give rise to toxicity," the study warned. "Workers who have direct contact with waste materials are potentially at risk of infection due to the presence of articles such as disposable nappies and discarded needles in wastes."

Although the evidence was limited, the institute expressed concern that the industry may be building up serious health problems for the future. "The mobility of the labour force and long time scale over which serious respiratory illness may develop means that there may be a hidden burden of ill-health associated with working in the waste and recycling industry," it said.

Hundreds of inspections planned

HSE, the UK government agency responsible for ensuring health and safety at work, accepted that there was a "terrible toll" from recycling. "The bottom line is that if you work in waste and recycling you are more likely to have an accident, or a fatal accident, than if you work in other industries," said Wayne Williams, an inspector on HSE’s waste and recycling team.

That was why, along with agriculture and construction, recycling was being targeted as one of HSE’s "priority" industries. HSE inspectors are planning to make visits, mostly unannounced, to hundreds of recycling sites over the next two years. "Anyone who works in the waste industry should not be surprised if they see an HSE inspector knocking on their door," warned Williams. "If you haven’t seen us for a while, we will be coming."

He attributed the high rates of injury, illness and death to several factors. The industry was very diverse, it was innovating and it contained a large percentage of small and medium-sized enterprises, which had fewer resources. He also highlighted firms’ reliance on agency workers, who might not be experienced, and migrant workers, who might have language problems.

Along with employers and trade unions, the HSE has set up the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) forum. It works to encourage good practice in waste recycling operations by issuing advice and guidelines, and in 2013 agreed a 24-point action plan. But Williams stressed that there was no "magic bullet" that could solve all the problems.

"A lot of effort is being put in by HSE and the industry to try and improve things," he said. "But it’s not going to happen overnight." He expected that the recycling industry would remain a priority for the foreseeable future. He dismissed suggestions that his agency might be short of resources, saying: "HSE works with what it gets."

The key, Williams argued, was to work with other agencies to engage managers and workers throughout the industry. "This is an industry problem – they have the prerogative to sort themselves out," he said. "There’s isn’t a policeman on every corner." Would HSE’s strategy succeed? "Only time will tell," he replied.

Government cutbacks will have ‘bloody consequences’

HSE’s approach was broadly backed by the trade union, Unison, which encouraged workers and managers to work together to reduce the risks. "This means that very senior managers within organisations dealing with waste and recycling must take an active role in promoting health and safety," said Unison’s Vincent Borg. "It also means that employers need to involve their employees."

Another trade union involved in the industry, Unite, took a slightly tougher line, arguing that employers had the "primary responsibility" for reducing the risks. "Enforcement is a proven and effective driver for health and safety compliance," said Unite’s Susan Murray.

Unite strongly condemned a 35% cut in government funding for the HSE, and comparable cuts to local authority budgets. "This is dangerous for workers and sends the wrong message to those employers who have already have difficulty in complying with their legal responsibilities," stated Murray.

Professor Andrew Watterson, who heads the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, warned that HSE’s cutbacks would have "bloody consequences". He questioned whether the regulatory agency had enough staff to effectively police such a fragmented and hazardous industry, suggesting that its "hotspot inspections" would only be able to cover a small proportion of sites.

"Vague partnerships with disparate stakeholders will not do the trick," he said. What was needed was "greater surveillance, regulatory enforcement and stiffer fines and prison sentences for those who kill and maim workers," he argued. "The industry has a whole host of well-established and mainly old disease and injury health hazards and needs far better control than it currently receives."

Hilda Palmer, acting chair of the UK’s Hazards Campaign, pointed out the real harm being done by the industry was probably worse than that portrayed by the official statistics because many injuries and illness went unreported. "The problems occur across the whole sector from large to small companies, though they’re worse at the smaller non-unionised end," she said.

"The sector shades into unregulated and dangerous criminal activity paying vulnerable workers cash-in-hand for demolition and scrap work where injuries and illness are unreported. More enforcement action against employers with unsafe and unhealthy practices, based on frequent proactive inspection, more support for union safety reps, and rigorous action taken on concerns expressed by workers are essential."

Accidents reduced 70 per cent by some companies

The waste recycling industry is represented by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which said it covered 85% of the sector. This included major players like Biffa, Cory Environmental, Shanks, Sita, Veolia and Viridor, but it left out many smaller businesses. ESA accepted that "historically" the industry had "not had the best health and safety record."

In 2004 ESA set itself the target of reducing the incidence of reportable accidents by ten per cent a year. Though that hasn’t been achieved every year, it has been exceeded in other years, resulting in a drop of almost 70 per cent in accident rates at member companies between 2004 and 2011, according to ESA. It said it had revised its strategy in recent years to maintain momentum.

"While we of course have much further to go, there is little indication that this level of performance has been repeated across the waste sector as a whole," stated ESA’s policy executive, Stephen Freeland. He wanted HSE to publish a more accurate breakdown of its accident data so that the problem areas could be better identified and tackled.

He pointed out that the industry was undergoing a major transformation, as companies moved away from landfill towards sorting, recycling and energy-from-waste incinerators, sometimes involving investments of hundreds of millions of pounds. "But this brings a set of new health and safety challenges," he said, because more people were working more closely with heavy vehicles and machinery. "Higher recycling targets will require a greater range of materials to be collected for recycling, potentially increasing workplace exposure to new materials."

Freeland argued that government recycling policies should take greater account of health and safety. "While efforts to collect glass separately from other recyclable materials may help to promote high quality recycling, separate glass collections present their own unique health and safety challenges to workers," he said. "Greater volumes and diversity of materials will be handled in future, so the technology and health risks need to be fully explored."

None of this, however, is of much comfort to Dorothy Wright, who helped found the campaign group, Families Against Corporate Killers. "I not only lost my son at the hands of an employer who thought more of money than Mark’s life, but I have lost the ability to feel real joy, pleasure and peace of mind," she said.

"There is not a single day goes by that I do not think of Mark and wish I could have protected him. I’d like to think that by telling his story I can save someone else’s life by changing the attitude to health and safety in Britain."•

More information

Dorothy and Douglas Wright on the death of their son:

Families Against Corporate Killers:

Hazards magazine on the risks of green jobs:

Health and safety statistics in the waste sector: safety/stats

Special report - Waste and recycling: workers at risk

Table of contents

The fatal dangers of working in the recycling industry