Following the city's first on-the-job death of public works employee Marcus Colbert in January, Laurel Public Works officials are joining staff of the Fairfax County public works department in promoting the nationwide "Slow Down to Get Around" safety campaign for refuse and recycling employees.
Started by Cincinnati-based Rumpke Waste and Recycling company around 2005, the safety campaign urges drivers to proceed with caution around stopped waste and recycling collection vehicles and the employees working along roadways.
On Jan. 23, Colbert, a 30-year-old public works employee in Laurel, was killed when a person driving a Lincoln Navigator swerved into the trash truck he was working on after hitting a parked car. Colbert, who had worked with the city since 2003, died at the scene.
Move-over laws for police, fire trucks and ambulances exist in every state and require drivers to change lanes or slow down to 10 to 25 miles per hour, depending on the state. In 2012, state laws were modified to include hazard vehicles, such as tow trucks.
Laws have extended to collection vehicles in 15 states over the last few years, including Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia and Florida.
Laurel's Deputy City Administrator Bill Goddard said members of Fairfax County's Solid Waste Management Program, including safety analyst Duane Hendricks, met city officials during Colbert's funeral to pay their respects and share their safety awareness effort.
"They brought one of their trash trucks to the funeral and it had a huge [safety] logo and was a very bright truck," Goddard said. "That's what really caught my attention."
Following the service, the group discussed the ongoing "Slow Down to Get Around" campaign and how to improve the safety of Laurel city employees. The "slow-down law" took effect in Virginia in July 2015, requiring drivers to slow down at least 10 miles per hour below the posted speed limit and pass at least two feet to the left of any stationary trash or recycling collection vehicle. Penalties include up to a $250 fine.
Hendricks said Fairfax County government officials are currently trying to push the legislation through the Solid Waste Association of North America, also known as SWANA, another group advocating for the initiative.
"We set a high standard of what we do and we're just trying to be innovators in how we can create safety programs to keep people safe," Hendricks said. "We want to help out other neighbors and jurisdictions as well."
David Biderman, CEO of SWANA, said refuse and recycling collection is the fifth most dangerous job in the United States, more dangerous than law enforcement, firefighters or EMS personnel. On April 28, SWANA recognized all workers who were killed on the job during Workers' Memorial Day, which was established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971.
More than 4,800 workplace deaths occurred in the country in 2015, Biderman said. Although Fairfax County hasn't had any deaths on the job, Hendricks said an employee was severely injured in May 2015 after being hit by a car while working on a residential street.
Changes in Public Works
Shirley Colbert, Marcus Colbert's mother, said the investigation into her son's death remains ongoing, but that action must be taken in order to prevent future loss. Drivers should approach collection vehicles similarly to school buses, she said, where law requires drivers to stop as long as its red lights are flashing or stop sign is out.
"When I see a trash truck, I stop," she said. "You never know where [employees] are. What happened to my son could've been avoided. He was doing what he loved to do every day: going to work and helping his family out.
"Unless these laws are passed, people are going to keep doing what they're doing and nothing is going to stop," she said.
Colbert's father, Ralph Brent, is a 23-year employee with Laurel Public Works. He could not be reached for comment.
Laurel Public Works Director Robert Ferree said the department is working on a comprehensive analysis of its policies and procedures and developing some short-term solutions to improve employee safety. Several employee meetings were held following Colbert's death, alerting employees of possible dangers on the road.
Public works employees are trained on how to safely work on refuse and recycling trucks during orientation, Ferree said. Two employees are assigned to one truck.
"We have gear that is highly reflective, so that whether it's day or night, they stand out," Ferree said. "When you're out there doing your job, you're not thinking about the possibilities of somebody running into you. Now that this happened, these guys are actually out looking out for each other."
Warning lights and camera systems are currently installed on each truck, so that drivers can monitor everything happening behind the vehicle. New additions will include more bright amber and red LED lights, which Ferree says have been ordered.
"Hopefully, the people approaching these trucks will see these lights more than what comes from the factories," Ferree said.
Collaboration between the city of Laurel and Fairfax County is still in the early stages, but Hendricks said the Solid Waste Management Program's "Slow Down to Get Around" public service announcement is posted on the city's website www.cityoflaurel.org.
"If we can bring awareness to make sure these guys are OK, then that's the ultimate goal," Hendricks said. "They do a task that not many people want to do in the first place. It's often a thankless job, but it's a very important job for environmental reasons. These people have loved ones at home and we want to get them home safe."