Unions and waste management companies have expressed concerns about government guidance relating to the disposal of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Those in self-isolation are encouraged by the government to double-bag used PPE and store it for 72 hours before putting it out for disposal.
However, in guidance published on 13 July, the government says those who are not self-isolating can put out PPE such as face masks or gloves as ‘black bag’ waste without it needing double-bagging or storage (see letsrecycle.com story).
Stuart Richards is a senior organiser for trade union GMB in the West Midlands. He told letsrecycle.com: “There appears to be no scientific basis for the advice as it now stands and there are obvious health and safety concerns for GMB as the union representing workers in the waste industry.”
When contacted by letsrecycle.com, Defra argued there had been no changes to the guidance on disposing of PPE throughout the pandemic. The recently published update was an exercise in putting guidance that had previously been found elsewhere in one place, Defra said.
Normal health and safety procedures should be followed by waste management companies and their employees as all waste can potentially be contaminated, not just with Covid-19, Defra stated.
The Health and Safety Executive was also contacted for comment.
Mandatory face coverings
Since 24 July, face coverings have been compulsory in takeaways, banks and post offices as well as shops, supermarkets, indoor shopping centres and stations in England.
“The government is passing on an increased risk to waste workers”
Mr Richards said: “It is obvious that people need to take simple safety measures when disposing of PPE. The advice just doesn’t do this.
“Instead, the government is passing on an increased risk to waste workers.
“Actively encouraging people to put potentially infected material in general waste or even litter bins, without any other safety measures, is just plain negligent.”
He added: “GMB members working in the waste industry do an incredibly difficult job. The government is putting in place even more potential hazards to their health and safety.
“GMB Union will continue to fight on behalf of our members and challenge this half-baked guidance.”
Rob Miguel, health and safety lead at trade union Unite, shares Mr Richards’ concerns. He told letsrecycle.com: “The government advice does not take into account asymptomatic cases contaminating face coverings or PPE.
“Unite is therefore concerned that our members in waste collection are being put at risk.
“We continue to work with members and employers to keep workplaces safe at all times.”
Edwin Briers is director of Staffordshire-based waste management company Wm. M. Briers & Son (Tamworth) Limited. He says the guidance represents an increased and unnecessary risk to employees who work within the waste and recycling industry.
In a letter to the HSE and the EA he said: “Our main worry, and one that seems to have been overlooked, is the potential risk to employees within the waste management industry contracting Covid-19 from surfaces such as bin lids or direct contact with the possibly Covid-19 contaminated waste itself, such as used masks, cleaning wipes and tissues placed in ‘non-hazardous’ bins.”
Mr Briers says that due to the “poor guidance” his company has suspended manually sorting loads of mixed non-hazardous waste as a precaution.
He says Briers is currently trying to collect waste PPE separately as 150202* – a category ascribed to absorbents, filter materials (including oil filters not otherwise specified), wiping cloths and protective clothing contaminated by hazardous substances under the European Waste Codes.
Mr Briers advised the waste should then be sent for incineration.
Mr Briers says he has also written to the Environment Agency to enquire as to whether the advice breaches the duty of care legislation which makes provision for the safe management of waste to protect human health and the environment.