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Bill aims to keep motorists clear of refuse trucks

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 7:59 p.m.
 

Waste industry workers, fearful of being injured by passing vehicles as they make their daily rounds, are backing a proposal that would require motorists to give a wide berth to stopped garbage trucks.

“What we're asking for is to have some law changes,” said Joe Rossi, president of Teamsters Local 249, which represents about 500 refuse workers in Western Pennsylvania. “We're looking for ... fines that make people think twice, that make them aware. We're looking to probably save some injuries and maybe save some lives.”

State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, and Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, collected comments on House Bill 1273, the “Slow Down to Get Around Act,” during a hearing last week in the Teamsters union hall in Lawrenceville. Refuse and recycling collection is the seventh-most dangerous job in the country, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, outranking police and firefighters in on-the-job fatalities. In 2011, there were 30 fatal injuries, according to bureau data.

In addition to injuries, “There's probably even more near-misses that are never reported by our people,” said William Klimovich, assistant director of Pittsburgh's Department of Public Works, environmental services.

The bill, assigned to the House Transportation Committee, would require that drivers slow down when they pass a garbage truck that has flashing or blinking lights — or risk a $250 fine.

Fines for any other driving violations would be doubled in an area where workers are collecting garbage, and any vehicular accident that kills a refuse worker would carry a prison sentence of as long as five years.

“A lot of people mindlessly whip around our vehicles,” said Patrick Felton, public works director for North Fayette. “It only takes a second to make a mistake, and it only takes a second to slow down.”

In February 2012, Pittsburgh refuse worker Aaron Atkins' legs were injured when sport utility vehicle rear-ended a garbage truck in East Liberty, pinning him against the back of the truck.

“His 6-foot-5-inch stature was the only thing that saved him,” co-worker Paul Kapetanovich said during the hearing. “If he was one foot shorter, his internal organs would have been crushed.”

In July 2006, a similar accident killed Waste Management Inc. employee Victor Cavazos, 40, of Washington.

A pickup rear-ended a garbage truck in Elizabeth Township, pinning Cavazos between the vehicles. The pickup driver, Robert Quarrick of Smithfield, was sentenced to six to 12 months in prison. He was released in February 2008, according to court records.

John McGoran, a manager at Republic Services Inc.'s Imperial Landfill and a steering committee member for the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, said company policy prohibits discussing specifics, but he said there have been several incidents involving vehicles in the past few years.

Some members of the association plastered their garbage trucks with signs that say “Slow Down to Get Around,” and Republic is switching some suburban areas over to one-man crews. The driver of a truck with the steering wheel on the right can stop at a curb, get out to load refuse and recyclables, then get back in the truck with minimal exposure to traffic, McGoran said.

The high risk of injuries drives up the cost of insuring garbage collectors. That, combined with large investments required to buy and maintain refuse trucks, likely contributed to many Pittsburgh area municipalities contracting trash and recycling collections to private companies, said Lou Gorski, executive director of the South Hills Area Council of Governments.

Only a few communities still handle their own garbage collection, including North Fayette, Monroeville, Oakdale and West Mifflin.

In the past 10 years, Monroeville's 15 refuse collectors and drivers had one accident involving another vehicle and multiple close calls, municipal Manager Lynette McKinney said.

Ferlo said he planned to introduce a companion bill to Costa's in the state Senate in the fall. He said the state, private garbage collectors and municipalities could work together on an educational program to remind drivers about safe conduct around garbage trucks.

“It's not just going to be a legislative remedy,” Ferlo said. “Whatever bills we pass, we need some kind of public education aspect.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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