Composting Safety and Health

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Introduction: Like farming, composting is rugged work. It involves mechanical equipment, physical labor and handling of diverse biological materials. It is usually practiced outdoors for long hours, in all types of weather. Even when composting takes place indoors the environment can be difficult for workers. By its nature, composting exposes operators to assorted microorganisms (e.g. molds and bacteria), dust, vapors, noise, sharp objects, heavy objects, fog, sunlight, heat, extreme cold, strain, fatigue and mechanical and electrical machinery. Thus, composting inherently entails safety and health hazards. Even when composting facilities employ sound practices, there will always be risks associated with day to day operations, and occasional accidents. However, awareness of the hazards, prevention and preparedness keep the risks from becoming safety incidents and health problems.

Although there are a few general safety and health guidelines (see sidebar, page 6), different composting operations face different sets of hazards. Facilities vary in scale, the feedstocks handled, composting methods, types of equipment, climate, worker skills and training, seasonality, hours of operation and level of management. The feedstocks handled, methods employed, the equipment used and the work practices followed strongly affect the specific safety and health hazards encountered and the associated levels of risk. Tables 10.1 and 10.2 provide an overview of the general hazards that composters may encounter in different facets of an operation.

Safety and health hazards should be addressed using a hierarchy of control measures (Figure 10.1). Ideally, the source of the hazard should be eliminated first; for instance, by altering the process, redesigning equipment, changing tools, installing ventilation, isolating the machine, or adding machine guards. If the hazard can’t be eliminated, it should be reduced through management practices like improving working procedures or establishing administrative controls, such as job rotation or reduced work time. To guard against any potential hazards that remain, the next step is adequate protection, like using personal protective equipment.

This chapter describes safety and health issues related to composting and the practices that minimize the associated risks. While safety and health are not inseparable, in this chapter, safety is informally associated with physical trauma, such as an equipment accident, a fall or impact from a projectile. In contrast, health risks are loosely linked with physiological injury or illness to a person, usually from continued or repeated exposure to a hazard.

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Cornell Waste Management Institute
composting safety and health; compost facilities
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