Garbage collection and related industries rank as the fifth-most dangerous occupation, but the Houston County Sanitation Department tries – with great success – to beat the odds every day.
On Monday the department completed is 1,000th consecutive day without a “medical case,” described as any injury requiring a doctor visit at the minimum. Sanitation supervisor Jim Nunley said some cuts and scrapes occur from time to time, but nothing has required major medical attention since Oct. 12, 2015.
“We’re not totally accident-free, but as far as medical cases, it went to nothing,” he said.
For years the sanitation department recorded several medical cases – averaging about 20 a year, said safety director Kelly Crowell. Some changes to policy and proper clothing earlier this decade reduced some of the numbers, but the major change occurred in 2014 when the Houston County Commission purchased a fleet of automatic-lift trucks.
Gone – mostly – were the days of two employees riding on the back of each garbage truck and exposing themselves to vehicle collisions, trips, falls and various other mishaps.
“We talked about (how they service) over 600 homes per day per truck that they service,” Crowell said. “Back in the day when that was manual, that’s (600) times of up and down, of dumping cans, riding miles, hanging off the back, shoulder strains.”
“Shins getting cut,” Nunley added.
Now with automated trucks comprising all but two trucks of the fleet, the department only needs one person for most routes, and drivers rarely step out of the vehicle.
“Before when we had three guys, the driver and two laborers, it wasn’t just me I was having to worry about,” said truck driver Michael Williams. “I had two guys on the back, and we had to worry about traffic. It helped out a lot going to these (automated trucks).”
Still the department takes several precautions to ensure drivers are not involved in accidents. New RouteWare software helps the department analyze potential safety issues on each route, and extra cameras installed on different sides of the trucks provide drivers better views of the traffic around them.
Additionally an Alabama State Trooper has discussed road safety with the department, and Nunley conducts safety briefings each day.
“I call it a tailgate meeting. All of my guys will get here in the afternoons, and we’ll talk,” he said. “I’ll find out what’s wrong with their trucks, get with the shop and make sure if it’s a safety issue that it’s handled. We just make sure our trucks are in good shape and ready to go.”
Further planning also has reduced the department’s risk potential. Several facets of each truck provide more visibility, including strobe lights, Crowell said.
Also supervisors ensure truck drivers do not travel the roadways in hazardous conditions.
“We have sat here recently until 8 o’clock (in the morning) when it’s foggy,” Nunley said. “I won’t let them leave the yard. If I can’t see clearly to the barn, I won’t let them leave. We’ll do what we can to keep everybody safe.”
When rain turns dirt roads into slick messes, the department utilizes a smaller manual truck. The practice prevents the larger automated trucks from getting stuck and sliding, and eliminates a “tipping factor,” Crowell said.
Nunley and Crowell credit county engineer Barkley Kirkland and the Houston County Commission for the switch to automated trucks.
“It’s visionary for them to think ahead on how we can improve,” Crowell said. “There are some counties now that are still…”
“… manual, still hanging on the back of it,” Nunley finished.
Nunley also quickly credited another group for the department’s sparkling safety record.
“It’s all a tribute to my drivers,” he said.