HSE Warns of Health Risks to Workers at Sites Handling Municipal Waste

The Issue

​Organic dust and bioaerosols can develop when municipal waste is collected, separated, and composted. The organic dust and bioaerosols produced by these processes can be harmful to the health of workers operating at a site if no safeguards are in place.

To better understand the health risks associated with the handling of municipal waste, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) conducted research at mechanical and biological treatment plants, waste transfer stations, and energy from waste power stations.

The Risks

The research discovered that although worker exposure was relatively low, there were 3 processes in which there was a higher risk of exposure to dust, endotoxin, fungi and bacteria:

  • Cleaning and maintenance
  • Sorting and refining after bio-drying
  • Hand sorting recovered dry cell batteries

Measures

​Of the sites visited, respiratory protective equipment was utilised during higher exposure risk processes, however more training and supervision is needed.

Developments in plant and process design could advance methods of controlling exposure, for example by automating the process of sorting to limit the number of workers exposed. The study however identified further possible improvements, such as the design of engineering controls to stop spillages and resulting exposure.

In MBT plants, an increase in the level of enclosure of sorting equipment and conveyor systems could better control airborne material and spillage, limiting the risk of exposure to cleaning and maintenance personnel.

Welfare

All sites had good quality welfare facilities, but the set-up of the facilities meant they could be overlooked with some ease, resulting in workers wearing contaminated clothing in the office areas and canteen. Many sites had laundry services but at some sites there was a greater need for workers to show they were using it compared to other sites.

All sites visited had an exposure-monitoring programme that measured exposure to inhalable dust, but no programmes measured exposure to bioaerosol. The HSE acknowledged in their report a more systematic exposure assessment programme would increase cost and complexity for businesses.

Click here to read the HSE Bioaerosols study