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Domestic Waste Collection

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In many locations domestic waste collection is performed by municipal employees. In others, by private companies. This article provides an overview of processes and hazards that are based on observations and experiences in the Province of Quebec, Canada. Editor.


Besides the few workers employed by municipalities in the Province of Quebec, Canada, that have their own waste collection boards, thousands of waste collectors and drivers are employed in hundreds of companies in the private sector.

Many private enterprises rely, either wholly or partially, upon jobbers who rent or own trucks and are responsible for the collectors who work for them. Competition in the sector is high, as municipal contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, and there is a regular annual turnover of enterprises. The high competition also results in low and stable domestic waste-collection rates, and waste collection accounts for the lowest proportion of municipal taxes. However, as the existing landfills fill up, landfill costs rise, obliging municipalities to consider integrated waste-management systems. All municipal workers are unionized. Unionization of private-sector workers began in the 1980s, and 20 to 30% of them are now unionized.

Work Processes

Waste collection is a dangerous trade. If we recognize that garbage trucks are similar to hydraulic presses, it follows that waste collection is like working on a mobile industrial press under conditions much more demanding than those encountered in most factories. In waste collection, the machine travels through traffic in all seasons and workers must feed it by running behind it and tossing irregular objects of variable volume and weight, containing invisible and hazardous objects, into it. On average, collectors handle 2.4 tonnes of waste per hour. The efficiency of waste collection operations is entirely dependent on determinants of work rate and rhythm. The need to avoid rush-hour traffic and bridge line-ups creates time pressures at collection points and during transport. Speed is again of importance during unloading at landfills and incinerators.

Several aspects of waste collection influence workload and hazards. First, remuneration is on a flat-rate basis, that is, the territory specified by contract must be completely cleared of domestic waste on collection day. Since the volume of waste depends on residents’ activities and varies from day to day and from season to season, the workload varies enormously. Secondly, workers are in direct contact with the objects and waste collected. This is quite different from the situation in the commercial and industrial waste-collection sectors, where waste-filled containers are collected by either front-loading trucks equipped with automated fork-lifts or by roll-off trucks. This means that workers in those sectors do not handle the waste containers and are not in direct contact with the waste. Working conditions for these collectors therefore more closely resemble those of domestic waste drivers, rather than domestic waste collectors.

Residential collection (also known as domestic collection) is, on the other hand, primarily manual, and workers continue to handle a wide variety of objects and containers of variable size, nature and weight. A few suburban and rural municipalities have implemented semi-automated collection, involving the use of mobile domestic waste bins and side-loading collectors (figure 1). However, most domestic waste continues to be collected manually, especially in cities. The principal characteristic of this job is thus significant physical exertion.

Figure 1. Automatic, side-loading refuse collector.


Pak Mor Manufacturing Company


A study involving field observations and measurements, interviews with management and workers, statistical analysis of 755 occupational accidents and analysis of video sequences revealed a number of potential hazards (Bourdouxhe, Cloutier and Guertin 1992).


On average, waste collectors handle 16,000 kg spread out over 500 collection points every day, equivalent to a collection density of 550 kg/km. Collection takes almost 6 hours, equivalent to 2.4 tonnes/hour, and involves walking 11 km during a total work day of 9 hours. Collection speed averages 4.6 km/h, over a territory of almost 30 km of sidewalks, streets and lanes. Rest periods are limited to a few minutes precariously balanced on the rear platform, or, in the case of driver-collectors of side-loading trucks, at the wheel. This demanding workload is exacerbated by such factors as the frequency of truck dismounts and mounts, the distance covered, travel modes, the static effort required to maintain one’s balance on the rear platform (a minimum of 13 kg of force), the frequency of handling operations per unit time, the variety of postures required (bending movements), the frequency of tosses and twisting movements of the trunk and the high collection rate per unit time in some sectors. The fact that the Association française de normalisation (AFNOR) adapted weight standard for manual handling was exceeded in 23% of observed trips is eloquent testimony of the impact of these factors. When workers’ capacities (established to be 3.0 tonnes/hour for rear-loading trucks, and 1.9 tonnes/hour for side-loading ones) are taken into account, the frequency with which the AFNOR standard is exceeded rises to 37%.

Diversity and nature of objects handled

Manipulation of objects and containers of variable weight and volume interrupts the smooth flow of operations and breaks work rhythms. Objects in this category, often hidden by residents, include heavy, large or bulky objects, sharp or pointed objects and hazardous materials. The most frequently encountered hazards are listed in table 1.


Table 1. Hazardous objects found in domestic waste collections.

Glass, window panes, fluorescent tubing

Battery acid, cans of solvent or paint, aerosol containers, gas cylinders, motor oil

Construction waste, dust, plaster, sawdust, hearth cinders

Pieces of wood with nails in them

Syringes, medical waste

Garden waste, grass, rocks, earth

Furniture, electrical appliances, other large domestic trash

Pre-compacted waste (in apartment buildings)

Excessive numbers of small containers from small businesses and restaurants

Large amounts of vegetable and animal waste in rural sectors

Extra-large bags

Prohibited containers (e.g., no handles, excessive weight, 55-gallon oil drums, thin-necked drums, garbage cans without covers)

Small, apparently light bags that are in fact heavy

Excessive numbers of small bags

Paper bags and boxes that rip

All waste that is hidden because of its excessive weight or toxicity, or that surprises unprepared workers

Commercial containers that must be emptied with an improvised system, which is often inappropriate and dangerous


Workers are greatly helped by having residents sort waste into colour-coded bags and mobile domestic bins which facilitate the collection and allow better control of work rhythm and effort.

Climatic conditions and the nature of objects transported

Wet paper bags and poor-quality plastic bags that rip and scatter their contents over the sidewalk, frozen garbage cans and domestic bins stuck in snow banks can cause mishaps and dangerous recovery manoeuvres.

Work schedule

The need to rush, traffic problems, parked cars and crowded streets all can contribute to dangerous situations.

In an attempt to reduce their workload and maintain a high but constant work rhythm in the face of these constraints, workers often attempt to save time or effort by adopting work strategies that may be hazardous. The most commonly observed strategies included kicking bags or cardboard boxes towards the truck, zigzagging across the road to collect from both sides of the street, grabbing bags while the truck is in motion, carrying bags under the arm or against the body, using the thigh to help load bags and garbage cans, hand-picking of waste scattered on the ground and manual compaction (pushing garbage overflowing the hopper with the hands when the compacting system is incapable of processing the load rapidly enough). For example, in suburban collection with a rear-loading truck, almost 1,500 situations were observed per hour that could result in accidents or increase workload. These included:

  • 53 mounts and dismounts from the truck’s rear platform
  • 38 short runs
  • 482 bending movements
  • 203 tosses
  • 159 twisting movements
  • 277 potentially hazardous actions (including 255 work strategies aimed at reducing workload by saving time or effort)
  • 285 instances of increased workload, including 11 mishap- recovery activities
  • 274 dangerous or heavy objects or containers.


Collection with side-loading trucks (see figure 1) or small mobile domestic bins reduces the manipulation of heavy or dangerous objects and the frequency of situations that could result in accidents or an increase in workload.

Use of public thoroughfares

The street is the collectors’ workplace. This exposes them to such hazards as vehicular traffic, blocked access to residents’ waste receptacles, accumulation of water, snow, ice and neighbourhood dogs.


Rear-loading trucks (figure 2) often have excessively high or shallow steps and rear platforms that are difficult to mount and render descents perilously similar to jumps. Hand-rails that are too high or too close to the truck body only worsen the situation. These conditions increase the frequency of falls and of collisions with structures adjacent to the rear platform. In addition, the upper edge of the hopper is very high, and shorter workers must expend additional energy lifting objects into it from the ground. In some cases, workers use their legs or thighs for support or additional power when loading the hopper.

Figure 2. Back-loading enclosed compactor truck.


National Safety Council (US)  The packer-blade comes down within centimetres of the edge of the platform. The blade has the capacity to cut protruding objects.

The characteristics of side-loading trucks and the operations related to their loading result in specific repetitive movements likely to cause muscle and joint problems in the shoulder and upper back. Driver-collectors of side-loading trucks have an additional constraint, as they must cope with both the physical strain of collection and the mental strain of driving.

Personal protective equipment

While the theoretical value of PPE is beyond question, it may nevertheless prove inadequate in practice. In concrete terms, the equipment may be inappropriate for the conditions under which collection is carried out. Boots, in particular, are incompatible with the narrow utilizable height of rear platforms and the high work rhythm necessitated by the manner in which collection is organized. Strong, puncture-resistant yet flexible gloves are valuable in protecting against hand injuries.

Work organization

Some aspects of work organization increase workload and, by extension, hazards. In common with most flat-rate situations, the main advantage to workers of this system is the ability to manage their work time and save time by adopting a rapid work rhythm as they see fit. This explains why attempts, based on safety considerations, to slow down the pace of work have been unsuccessful. Some work schedules exceed workers’ capacities.

The role of the myriad variations of residents’ behaviour in the creation of additional hazards merits a study in itself. Prohibited or dangerous wastes skilfully hidden in regular waste, non-standard containers, excessively large or heavy objects, disagreements over collection times and non-conformity with bylaws all increase the number of hazards—and the potential for conflicts between residents and collectors. Collectors are often reduced to the role of “garbage police”, educators and buffers between municipalities, enterprises and residents.

Collection of materials for recycling is not without its own problems despite a low waste density and collection rates far below those of traditional collection (with the exception of the collection of leaves for composting). The hourly frequency of situations that could result in accidents is often high. The fact that this is a new type of work for which few workers have been trained should be borne in mind.

In several cases, workers are obliged to perform such dangerous activities as mounting the truck’s compaction box to get into the compartments and move piles of paper and cardboard with their feet. Several work strategies aimed at speeding up work rhythm have also been observed, e.g., hand re-sorting of the material to be recycled and removing objects from the recycling box and carrying them to the truck, rather than carrying the box to the truck. The frequency of mishaps and disruptions of normal work activity in this type of collection is particularly high. These mishaps result from workers doing ad hoc activities that are themselves dangerous.

Occupational Accidents and Prevention

Domestic waste collection is a dangerous trade. Statistics support this impression. The average annual accident rate in this industry, for all types of enterprise, truck and trade, is almost 80 accidents for every 2,000 hours of collection. This is equivalent to 8 workers of every 10 suffering an injury at least once a year. Four accidents occur for every 1,000 10-tonne truckloads. On average, each accident results in 10 lost workdays and accident compensation of $820 (Canadian). Indices of injury frequency and severity vary among enterprises, with higher rates observed in municipal enterprises (74 accidents/100 workers versus 57/100 workers in private enterprises) (Bourdouxhe, Cloutier and Guertin 1992). The most common accidents are listed in table 2.

Table 2. Most common accidents in domestic waste collection, Quebec, Canada.



Per cent of accidents studied

Back or shoulder pain

Tossing or twisting movements during collection of bags


Back injuries

Excessive efforts while lifting objects


Ankle sprains

Falls or slips while dismounting from the truck or moving in its vicinity


Crushed hands, fingers, arms or knees

Struck by containers or heavy objects, being caught between the vehicle and containers, or collisions with part of the vehicle or parked cars


Hand and thigh lacerations of variable depth

Glass, nails, or syringes, occurring during hopper loading


Scrapes and bruises

Contact or collisions


Eye or respiratory-tract irritation

Dust or splashes of liquids occurring during work near the hopper during compaction






Collectors typically suffer hand and thigh lacerations, drivers typically suffer sprained ankles resulting from falls during cabin dismounts and driver-collectors of side-loading trucks typically suffer shoulder and upper back pain resulting from tossing movements. The nature of the accidents also depends on the type of truck, although this can also be seen as a reflection of the specific trades associated with rear- and side-loading trucks. These differences are related to equipment design, the type of movements required and the nature and density of waste collected in the sectors in which these two types of truck are used.


The following are ten categories in which improvements could make domestic waste collection safer:

  1. management of health and safety (for instance, the development of accident-prevention programmes based on workers’ knowledge of occupational hazards which are better adapted to actual tasks)
  2. training and hiring
  3. work organization, organization of collection and workload
  4. vehicles
  5. training and work conditions of auxiliary, occasional and temporary workers
  6. collection contracts
  7. public management
  8. collaboration between employer associations (municipal and private), workers and municipal or regional decision-making bodies
  9. stability of the workforce
  10. research on personal protective equipment, ergonomic design of trucks, subcontracting jobbers and safety.



Domestic waste collection is an important but hazardous activity. Protection of workers is made more difficult where this service is contracted out to private sector enterprises which, as in the province of Quebec, may subcontract the work to many smaller jobbers. A large number of ergonomic and accident hazards, compounded by work quotas, adverse weather and local street and traffic problems must be confronted and controlled if workers’ health and safety are to be maintained.



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