The Coronavirus has currently impacted the way we live and do business. Waste Advantage Magazine talked with six experts in the industry to get their perspective on how this pandemic is affecting their business and how they have kept employees safe.
In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the global coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is a pandemic, which means the illnesses are occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population. Since then, everyday life has been disrupted. Impacts have ranged from school and business closings, to the cancellation of public events to the interruption of basic services such as public transportation.
As an essential service, society is relying on the public and private waste services sector to collect waste and recyclables from homes, business and institutions.
What were the three most important things that you have done during the pandemic and what actions did you take that you wish you did faster?
John Paglia, III: We have always been known for having some of the shiniest garbage trucks in the country. Image is very important to us. To protect our hard-working customer service driven employees, we wanted to increase our attention to detail by implementing mandatory daily disinfecting and cleaning procedures by our Maintenance Department for each route truck. When a truck finishes from its daily route and is parked, our team uses a germicidal disinfecting detergent. It is applied to all interior surfaces, including, but not limited to, steering wheels, seats, floors, dash, doors, operations controls, buttons, switches, etc. This allows them to worry about the already safety intensive job and gives them the peace of mind every day that they are returning to safe working environment. It’s very important to us to protect our family of employees. We are evaluating and making changes as new challenges come our way. We have found it very important to be able to adjust on the fly.
We have also taken an important role in supporting our employees, their families, and small businesses forced to shut their doors during the stay at home order. In addition to supplying mask, gloves, sanitizer, soap and water for every working employee, we also implemented hourly and weekly payroll raises. We have added more staffing and rented more collection equipment to allow us to shorten our routes and get our employees routes completed earlier so they too can return home to protect and support their families, who like many of us, have kids home from school and spouses who may be temporarily unemployed. We also have recently implemented purchasing boxed lunches from many local bars and grills that are our customers, on a weekly basis for all our staff to have a bring along lunch or a take home dinner.
I always try to learn from current situations as an opportunity to have another vantage point. I believe it has only bonded our company for the better. I believe most employees knew we cared for them, but not this much. The appreciation by them allows them to come to work clear headed and serve our family of customers with the respect and reliability they pay for. In hindsight it would have been nice for us to have a higher in-stock inventory of high demand items like portable wash stations, soap, and hand sanitizer for our customers that require them on construction sites and for our employee use. As of beginning of April we were able to secure and stock sanitizer and wash stations to better serve our customers and allow them to keep working safely. It was a daily search around the clock for what felt like two weeks straight to get these items. I finally found a company in Tampa and drove over 300 miles to obtain the sanitizer and soap.
trends3Keith Banasiak: The most important things we did to prepare were communicate, provide for and train our employees. However, I do wish we had prepared and and procured additional PPE and sanitizer for our staff. However, we have done well navigating through this pandemic. I’m sure that once we gather post pandemic data and learn from this, we will eliminate things that may not have been pertinent and redirect our focus on those areas and items that are.
Mark Creswell: In any crisis, you need to act quickly and take proactive steps to protect employees and customers. We moved quickly. Every morning, we reviewed the prior day’s statistics and made adjustments as needed. The early actions we took to communicate with our customers and our employees were critical. Customers were glad to hear that we were there for them and they didn’t need to worry about waste collection. Some customers needed more services while others needed less. We talked to everyone. Employees were confident that they had the tools and the resources to get the job done. Another important thing we did was to contact all of our supply chain partners to make certain they would be able to meet our ongoing demand for critical supplies. Fortunately, we have great relationships with our customers and vendors, and no one has let us down. Another action item that we did at the beginning of the crisis was to reach out to the Small Business Administration and developed a good understanding of the programs offered to help.
Have you had any staffing challenges?
Paglia: We have always tried to stay ahead of the curve of what most businesses offer their employees. Under normal conditions, we already have an excellent package for staffing no matter the position. We strive to have top tier base pay, IRA annual company matching, 90-100 percent company paid Health, Dental, and Vision insurance, monthly safety bonuses, Christmas bonuses, free gym memberships, and annual bonuses. We recently doubled everyone’s monthly safety bonuses. We are in the process of increasing everyone’s base pay to help ease the stress if their spouse lost a job. We have increased our operating cost during this pandemic due to more trucks on route to shorten routes and not have our trucks on the road as long daily. This motivates the current staff letting them clearly understand their safety and well-being is more important than profits and routing efficiency. This pandemic has not stopped our alinement of future growth through acquisition, it has probably escalated them. Therefore, we are really pushing applicants of all positions, wanting to join a growing business with stable career opportunities, to apply online. We are recruiting talent via recruiters, social media, internet, print marketing.
Banasiak: We have been fortunate to have our offices receive resumes and applications during this pandemic. At the start, we were in a fair position, but now we are the benefactor of employees that have been forced out from other employment.
Creswell: We have not had any staffing changes. We are a small, but strong, company. Our employees are confident and hard working. They care about their customers and each other so when the going got tough, I knew I could count on the entire team to dig a little deeper and get the job done. And at the end of the day, they know our company cares about them and their families.
What did you learn about your customers during the pandemic? How do you continue to communicate with them about their waste and recycling routes, disposal, and being mindful of keeping garbage collectors safe?
Shawn Mandel: Commercial volumes have dropped significantly and there has been a large increase on the residential side, so we have communicated to customers quite a bit, such as if you have a positive case in your household, please bag and seal that trash separately and we need to make sure that they understand that it is not medical waste, it can go in with the MSW. We also do not want our employees exposed to those materials that potentially still carry the virus. We have used social media a lot, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, PSAs and even mass mailings. We have been getting some good responses back from our customers. The outcomes from this crisis will have a significant impact on our industry.
Paglia: We have found that almost all customers understand the situation and challenges we all are facing being on the front lines collecting waste during this pandemic. At the same time, we are sympathetic to their challenges and stresses. Our collection policies and period have been stretched, we have allowed commercial accounts to suspend or cancel without penalty. The unfortunate truth is many businesses may not survive. On a positive note, we have had many customers donating mask and supplies for our employees to wear because they love their “garbage guys”. Many other local businesses have stepped up to assist where they can. We have many openings for all positions due to requirements and strain this pandemic has caused for our industry. We have been able to employ recently laid off individuals who joined with intent to be temporary but have voiced to us they want to remain permanently. For the last four weeks our offices have been closed to guest and customer visits. Our vendors are extremely limited, but we must accept outsiders who deliver essentials like parts, oils, and fuel to stay running for our customers. We have used many forms of communication, all of which require no human contact, which is a change considering I enjoy meeting my customers face to face and ending our deals with a firm handshake. We have shifted now to more phone conversations, direct text messages, post to social media on Facebook and Instagram, and adding posts to our website. Bulk/Yard waste collection suspension has been a growing trend in our industry. We continue to monitor the situation day by day and adjust accordingly.
Banasiak: I’ve learned that our residential customers are even more appreciative of our service. We have had a very strong customer loyalty and now, more than ever, we are receiving gestures of gratitude daily across our footprint. Not a day goes by where I do not see an e-mail with a photo or a letter of gratitude from our customers. Most of our municipal partners have taken the lead in consumer education. Where we are not in those situations, our local offices are providing education to those customers.
Creswell: Many customers are worried about the pandemic and the affect it will have on their business. I get it. We have fostered close relationships with our customers, and I can feel their pain. We communicate with customers by phone, e-mail and social media. We made sure we were accessible and responsive to every need.
Did you have a contingency plan in place prior to this? If so, did you refer to it when making a strategic plan?
Mandel: We set out early to develop a specific pandemic business continuity plan to address the impact we are seeing. We adopted targeted strategies beyond just the influenza planning that would normally take place. There were some additional things that we focused on, as this has been a crisis that we had never experienced before. Even when N1H1 happened, we did not close our corporate offices; however, with this pandemic we have taken it with the seriousness that it deserves.
Paglia: Owning a waste business in Florida, requires you to have plans for contingency based on short staffing, heavy garbage days due to holidays, and the almighty Hurricanes. None of those by themselves can help us prepare for this type of pandemic. Grouping parts of these plans together, in addition to our self -requirement of maintaining excellent customer service and staying light on our feet, we take each day as it comes. My father always told me “The show must go on”. What he means by that is no matter the challenges we have in front of us, it’s our duty to ensure every customer is serviced when scheduled, no matter what it takes. We also have posted any CDC or WHO tips and guidelines to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of the pandemic to all employees in real time. We do not want to assume they are gathering the up to date information in their off time. Our culture has always been built around the willingness to have hands on managers and owners. When the staff sees managers and owners willing to join in on the collection side during the pandemic, the motivation spreads from employee to employee faster than the pandemic itself.
Flower: We have crisis management plans in place to address a variety of situations including a Pandemic Response Plan. Our plan was flexible and helped us quickly organize and prepare for the quick moving crisis. Keep in mind, many of us had worked in the industry when the H1N1 pandemic occurred in 2009. The planning and the lessons learned 11 years ago were helpful in responding to this crisis.
Crewell: As a small company, we didn’t have a plan in place, however, we are quick learners and relied on the guidance from the Center for Disease Control, OSHA, SBA and Homeland Security to adapt to the crisis. I think we did really well especially in our actions to protect workers.
What changes to safety procedures have been made during the coronavirus pandemic? What are some of the (best) precautions that have been taken to protect the safety of employees?
Mandel: The first thing we did was update our pandemic operational continuity plan to address the potential severity of this pandemic. We had a lot of our customers reach out to us asking “how are you going to ensure business continuity if our local district is significantly impacted by this virus?”, “how are you going to continue to provide the necessary services that are essential?”. Fortunately, we were early adopters of the CDC and OSHA’s guidance on social distancing and other precautions and as a result, we have been fortunate that we have not seen many team members test positive. Waste Connections has had some cases, but not widespread in any particular district, including New York or some of our harder hit areas like New Orleans, etc. Our frontline leaders and teams have been able to control the number of positives through early and consistent adoption of those best practices.
We have ensured that all of our team members have access to the appropriate PPE, facial coverings, hand sanitizer and other needed supplies for their health and safety. For cleaning and disinfecting, we developed a new process, working closely with the CDC and other experts guidelines. It was based in part on the airline industry approach and how they are cleaning and disinfecting aircraft after positive tests. We developed the process, sourced the equipment, put together specific training and have been able to facilitate a lot of the cleaning and disinfecting of the trucks and equipment in house rather than trying to source through a cleaning company. It has enabled us to respond quicker and protect our team members better. Before, we could be waiting 3 to 10 days for third-party service.
Having several pieces of equipment or portions of the facility locked out until the service completed was simply not a viable solution. The plans adopted for our trucks and facilities have been very successful.
When the federal government decided it was going to divert personal protective equipment to healthcare personnel and first responders, we all understood why and knew that it was necessary. We even took significant amount of PPE, like the N95s that we used at the MRFs and donated them to healthcare and medical facilities in our local markets. However, the federal diversion impact on other types of PPE needed to protect our team made sourcing more challenging. So, we worked closely with industry associations to petition FEMA and other regulatory bodies to get a higher level of status when it comes to opening up some of those supply chains. We had to rethink our approach when it comes to certain type of protective practices that we put into place where we were struggling to use the traditional forms. For example, we went through thousands of nitrile gloves for maintenance and other team members within the organization and yet those were difficult to get. Even things like hand sanitizer was difficult to get so we were forced to get creative and reached out to some of our vendor partners, like Eric Hoffman at Classic Industrial Safety (CIS), who stepped up and helped significantly. In other cases, we came up with new training resources and practices based on CDC and OSHA guidance like the cleaning and disinfecting of trucks/equipment. Our team is extremely creative when it comes to identifying a problem and finding, sourcing or creating a solution and we are fortunate that we have great leadership throughout Waste Connections that has enabled us to continue to serve.
Paglia: How we interact in the office, operationally and with customers, that has changed for everybody – no hand shaking, no pats on the back, etc. We are overly cautious how we now allow employee interactions with customers and fellow employees. Basic limitations, like limiting one driver at the dispatch window for example. We are practicing CDC and WHO guidelines as far as social distancing. We are going through the trucks with a germicidal disinfectant daily as previously mentioned. We are protecting the staff doing the disifecting who are in full clothing with minimal exposed skin, goggles, and face mask. We installed 16-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer in every truck and will become part of the fluids check when trucks come in for maintenance. We have made it part of our mandatory safety culture.
Will Flower: On Long Island (New York), we developed and implemented a number of changes to protect workers and ensure our customers were getting the services they needed. Early on, we arranged to have the majority of office staff work from home to enhance social distancing. We also increased the frequency of office cleaning and truck cleaning in an attempt to stop or slow the spread of the virus. We also immediately stressed to our people that if they were sick, the best thing they can do for themselves and the company was to stay home, take care of themselves and get better as soon as possible. We also made sure that surfaces in the office, dispatch area and other workspaces were regularly cleaned and disinfected. And, we made sure we had a good supply of PPE, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. We also arranged for every truck cab to be disinfected every night.
Banasiak: We have followed and continually adhere to the CDC guidelines and structured our operations to comply. We have made a strong effort to have all employees keep a safe social distance throughout their days. Operationally, we have staggered route start times to limit the potential to gather as well as split up traditional larger groups for safety meetings. We have provided hand sanitizer and masks to the staff along with the traditional PPE needs and requirements. Each night, we have vehicles sanitized as they return from routes. Additionally, we have identified administrative staff capable of working remotely and made proper accommodations to allow them to be functional away from our facilities, which have restricted public access at this point.
Creswell: As soon as it became apparent that we were facing a major crisis, we immediately reached out to our customers and informed them that we were fully prepared to continue services as needed. We explained to customers that while we were limiting face-to-face contact, we were just a phone call away if they needed anything. We also made changes in the driver check in and check out procedures to minimize face-to-face contact. We immediately increased training and reviewed the steps to protect our families and friends from the spread of the virus. We set up guidelines for social distancing, ordered additional PPE and reviewed procedures for enhanced hand washing. We realized that information and training is at the heart of pandemic planning and containment, so we made sure to share educational material that explained the signs and symptoms of COVID-19.
David Biderman: It is important to recognize that the federal government has provided guidance stating that personal protective equipment such as gloves is sufficient to protect frontline solid waste employees from exposure to COVID-19. However, employers have made a variety of operational changes to address concerns. For example, drivers’ meetings at the start of the day are not taking place in a small room, but are being done either with appropriate social distancing or digitally. Truck cabs are being cleaned and wiped down on a regular basis. Employees are being reminded frequently to wash their hands and/or use hand sanitizer. Employees are not congregating in break rooms. Some recycling facilities have reduced the number of pickers to provide adequate social distancing. Gatehouse employees are no longer accepting cash, and the hours of operation at some facilities have changed to reduce the potential for exposure. My favorite adjustment that I’ve learned about is a handful of solid waste employers are either driving workers to the start of a residential route or allowing helpers to drive in their own vehicle to the start of the route and get on the riding step there. After a neighborhood is collected, the helper is returned to his vehicle and drives to the next neighborhood and gets back on the riding step. This is being done because a driver and helper typically are less than 6 feet apart in the cab. When the driver and helper are in a cab together, they should wear facial coverings.
How do you communicate safety measures or hold safety meetings when you have to practice social distancing?
Biderman: There are a variety of ways that employers can continue to communicate safety measures and coach employees to work safely, despite social distancing. Supervisors are using digital communications (primarily texts) to remind drivers, helpers, heavy equipment operators and others. Posters and other visual communication tools can still be used. Safety meetings are taking place outside in the yard where front line workers can remain 6 feet apart.
Mandel: Some of our larger sites have facilitated open bays in the shop and staggered start times to reduce the number of individuals coming in at any given time. In other locations we’ve been able to use our tablets and our other forms of electronic communication. We have safety communication boards that are posted at each of our districts and sent a lot of our messaging through them. Our learning management system (LMS) has been used to connect our team members through iPhones and other platforms, thus ensure that this critical message and training is still being delivered.
However, a big part of our organization’s success is built around relationships, both internal and external and we have had to think outside the box on how we connect and engage our team members. Fortunately, we have creative people who took up the challenge and are working around the clock to keep our culture and protect our team during this historic time in history.
Paglia: We have tried to model the “crowds less than 10” recommendation. Meetings are now held outside in the open air with men and women spaced more than 10 feet apart. We also have handouts of the material being discussed by the safety manager or coordinator who is giving the meeting for employees to read along. We do not eat in the common breakroom anymore, all cutlery is throw away not reusable preventing cross contamination. Everything that the CDC has recommended we are following to a ‘T’ and in most cases taking it one step further. HR department creates handouts to be given to employees and their families. We post to social medias and our internal employee email database.
Flower: Safety is critical during the pandemic, just as it was prior to the crisis. We strive to keep safety top of mind among all people within our organization. Effective communication drives home the importance of safety. In place of the traditional face-to-face safety meetings, we implemented other means of communication like printed flyers and posters to stress the importance of safety.
Banasiak: We have split up our employees into smaller groups and moved these meeting to open air locations while maintaining a proper distance between employees. In addition, our Operations Managers and Division Managers have become further engaged in street level activities. This allows extra management to be in the field to see our drivers and helpers more frequently on route to communicate the importance of their safety and that of our customers in a one-on-one setting.
Creswell: Having regular conversations about safety is important and the best conversations are dialogs in which employees have the opportunity to participate in the discussion by voicing their concerns, sharing opinions, and talking about the risks and challenges they face. We may not be meeting face-to-face, but I still talk to drivers every day and remind them to stay safe. Today, we are using a variety of communication tools to get our safety messages to employees. Some are old school like posters and printed memos and some of our communication involve group chats and social media.
What were the lessons learned? How will the pandemic change your approach to safety in the future?
Biderman: I spoke with the safety director at a top 10 solid waste company. One of the lessons that they have learned is that many corporate employees don’t need to be in a full-time office to do their job, and that includes safety professionals. I think we will see an expansion of tele-working throughout the U.S. and Canada as a result of the pandemic, in all industries. I wish I had bought stock in Zoom. While it’s premature to state definitively how the pandemic will change the industry’s approach to worker safety, most employers will continue to focus on preventing accidents and injuries. Illnesses are usually a small percentage of a company’s overall “total recordable incident rate,” known as TRIR. It is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to a larger focus on overall employee health, including return-to-work programs.
I think solid waste workers will continue to be concerned about potential exposure to COVID-19 long after current restrictions are lifted. It is essential for employers to repeatedly remind their workers to wear appropriate personal protection equipment (especially gloves), frequently wash their hands, continue to engage in social distancing, and not cut corners on the route or in post-disposal. SWANA recently reported a sharp increase in the number of collection-related fatal incidents—16 of them in the month starting March 15. Notwithstanding the legitimate concerns about COVID-19, solid waste collection is the 5th most dangerous job in the U.S. Employers need to make sure their frontline workers don’t cut corners, and supervisors need to monitor and coach employees. It would be terrific if the current focus on worker safety heralds the start of a significant culture change at companies and local agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada with regard to safety. SWANA would welcome it and provides many resources at swana.org that helps employers implement such a change.
Mandel: Jim Olson at Republic, Jeff Martin at Waste Management and I work closely with other industry leaders when it comes to safety. Some of the questions coming out of this crisis are “why didn’t we require hand sanitizer in our trucks before this happened?” and all of us scratched our head about it. We equip our trucks with first aid kits, emergency triangles and tools to help them do their jobs safely, but not hand sanitizer. Active hand washing can provide another level of safety and we all want to continue those practices after this passes. We want to encourage the industry to continue to move in that direction. Every one of our trucks should be equipped with those types of simple hygiene tools. Another point is the voluntary facial coverings—there are times when our people feel more comfortable wearing them. It may not necessarily be a confirmed hazard, but they may feel more comfortable with it on, so we are going to make those more readily available to our people if they choose to use them. Those type of things I see as being continued beyond this current pandemic.
Paglia: The lessons learned are ongoing. The pandemic will influence the way we do business not only for remainder of 2020, but on going in our business careers. I’m sure if we see someone in the future wearing a mask in public or forgoing a handshake, it will not be frowned upon. Prior to pandemic, I must admit our safety culture did not stress the importance we are giving today to protect the hygiene of our employees. It was always voluntary. We have always had Lysol wipes in the truck and bottles of sanitizer available upon request. Now we made it standard, installed bottles in every truck, and made it part of the service checklist for our mechanics to check as another fluid level to ensure the trucks are never without sanitizer. I can see us resuming a classroom setting for safety meetings, as a group, as a team just with aspects of social distance still incorporated. I think there will always be attention to spreading everyone out more than pre-pandemic and sanitization of common areas. Like all of us in the industry, we learn from every challenging time and this will be no different. We will implement many of these temporary policies into permanent solutions to protect the safety and well being of our staff and customers.