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Why do recycling industry workers have a high rate of injury?

The recycling industry is an important part of the economy in Illinois. Recycling waste is a primary method of reducing emissions and conserving the environment. It also creates jobs. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a ton of waste properly recycled can support 10 times more jobs than the same ton of waste sent to a landfill or an incinerator.

Unfortunately, recycling jobs are not always safe. Many recycling employees in Algonquin become disabled, requiring workers’ compensation or the help of an attorney. EPA statistics show that people who work in recycling facilities face an elevated risk of serious injury or even death on the job. The risk factors of the industry are wide-ranging. Some of these factors can be managed by supervisors and facility designers. Others are inherent risks of the job that should be addressed by proper training. Protecting the health of recycling workers is a crucial link in the chain of environmental protection.

Dangerous materials in recycling facilities

One of the major injury threats in recycling facilities is the presence of dangerous materials. Many things make their way into the recycling line that do not belong there. Workers must sort through hazardous waste, sometimes including dead animals, used needles, dirty diapers, rotten food, shards of glass, poisonous chemicals and other noxious items.

Recycling industry workers are on the front lines of the sorting process. When consumers are irresponsible, allowing incorrect items to go to recycling facilities, workers bear the burden of dealing with these items and removing them from the system. Contact with unsafe materials can cause injury and illness among employees.

Hazardous equipment is an everyday danger on the recycling line

Recycling equipment is often heavy and hazardous. Employees in recycling facilities must work with forklifts, balers, front-end loaders and large conveyor belts. Bales of sorted waste can weigh several tons and may fall on workers, seriously disabling or killing them. If machinery malfunctions or is used improperly, it can cause lethal injury. Compactors are especially dangerous. When employees are trapped in these machines, they are crushed.

A recent accident investigation by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows the dangers of malfunctioning recycling equipment. A recycling worker in Nevada was sorting paper in June 2012. The paper loading mechanism became jammed. When he attempted to break up the jam, several tons of compacted paper fell on him and killed him.

Laborious sorting must take place by hand

Machines are important in the waste management industry, but no machine can substitute for the skill and judgment of a recycling worker. Much of the sorting process takes place by hand. This laborious task can cause fatigue, carpal tunnel syndrome and injury from dangerous items. Workers stand at conveyor belts for hours, sorting through mounds of discarded refuse and placing items into the correct bins.

Even with proper ergonomic training, employees often face repetitive stress injuries and other disabilities from sorting materials on the recycling line. According to an OSHA study conducted during 2013, more than two out of three workers in recycling facilities had suffered a job-related illness or injury. 57 percent of these issues were musculoskeletal injuries, most often back injuries.

Unsanitary and uncomfortable facilities

Many recycling facilities are thoroughly unpleasant places to work. Employees report excessive heat, cold, bad smells, toxic dust, poor hygiene and lack of cleanliness in facilities. Protective masks are often not enough to keep dust out of the airway. Working under time pressure in this environment can lead to health problems and stress-related illnesses.

Vibration and noise exposure are also dangerous threats on the recycling line. Severe occupational noise can cause a number of physical problems, including insomnia, hearing loss, cardiovascular disturbances, tinnitus and hormonal imbalances in the blood. Workers in many facilities are unable to speak or hear over the noise of the recycling machinery.

Temporary workers are common in the recycling industry

Many workers in recycling and waste facilities are temporary employees. Companies can save money by hiring temporary staff to sort through waste, but the price is paid by the workers themselves. These workers are consistently lower paid and less trained. OSHA studies show that safety training is often lacking in recycling facilities because of the prevalence of contingent or short-term workers.

Temporary workers are often told to perform hazardous tasks without proper instruction. The risk of losing a temporary job is a powerful disincentive to speak up when there are unsafe conditions in a facility. In some cases, workers will not even seek medical attention because they do not want to draw criticism from their employers. A workers’ compensation attorney in Algonquin can name many cases in which staffing agencies offer no protection against possible retaliation on the job.

Recycling facilities can take action against problems

The recycling industry faces a serious safety crisis. Facilities can take action to solve these problems and cut the risk of injury or death on the sorting line. Some of the most important steps include the following:


  • Thorough training of all employees, including temporary, contingent and part-time employees

  • Close communication with staffing agencies

  • Regular inspection of processing equipment in recycling plants

  • Ergonomic best practices on the sorting line

  • Sufficient staffing to avoid stress on individual workers

  • Appropriate safety gear and protective clothing for all workers


When supervisors are willing to commit to higher standards and follow these steps, people will be safer in recycling facilities.

Working in the recycling industry can be challenging. People who have been injured in waste management facilities should consider speaking with a workers’ compensation attorney in Algonquin to discuss their rights.

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908 S Illinois Route 31
McHenry, IL 60050

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