It’s the worst nightmare for people working in the waste collection industry – and, in January 2017, it became a horrifying reality. A crew emptying commercial bins in the centre of Rochester discovered a badly injured man stuck in the workings of their refuse truck. Unknown to the collectors, he had been sleeping inside a wheeled bin and when it was hoisted up, he was tipped inside the vehicle. The victim, in his 40s, suffered leg and pelvis injuries and later died in hospital.
Collection firms such as Biffa and Veolia insist that health and safety is top priority, and operate stringent procedures aimed at protecting people from harm. But it isn’t always easy to detect a person sheltering in the padded interior of a large bin; in this case, the homeless man had wrapped himself in a carpet for extra warmth.
Sadly, the incident in Kent is not isolated one. Two years ago, a young man was found dead at a recycling plant after climbing into a bin after a night out in Sunderland. A large-scale search was also launched in 2017 after the disappearance of RAF gunner Corrie McKeague. He is thought to have fallen asleep in a bin in Bury St Edmunds before unknowingly taken to landfill.
And the risks are rising. Government statistics reveal the number of homeless people has soared by nearly a third, and Biffa has reported a dramatic increase in people sleeping in bins – up from 31 discovered by its staff in 2013/14 to 175 in 2015/16.
The health and safety policy adviser for the Environmental Services Association (ESA) says: ‘People are placing themselves in serious risk of harm. Data on the extent of the issue is patchy, but the number of incidents is undoubtedly on the increase.
One of the UK’s largest waste companies alone reports well in excess of 100 such incidents a year. The drive towards greater rates of recycling and source segregation of waste has, arguably, exacerbated the situation, with a bin of ‘clean material’ – such as paper and card – offering comparatively more comfortable container filled with mixed waste or food waste.
Perhaps more surprisingly, a significant proportion of incidents and death are not associated with homeless people at all, but with individuals with permanent residence and employment.
Unfortunately, there have been tragic incidents where people have sought refuge in a container after a night out and, often under the influence of a drink or drugs, have remained unconscious during the tipping of the container into the refuse vehicles.’