Solid Waste Poses Grave Occupational Risks
Rapid urbanization in the developing world continues to be a key characteristic of the effects of globalization in the 21st century. As towns and cities continue to expand at an unprecedented rate, urban populations continue to balloon.
This increase in urban dwellers has necessitated the need for urban or local authorities to enhance their services to match the rise in demand. However, this has not been the case in most urban environments. Instead, the result has been increased pressure on existing services such as the waste disposal system.
The mismatch between the rate of urbanization and service delivery has led to a number of environmental threats. For instance, in the Zimbabwean context, a depressed and volatile economic environment characterized by high unemployment and a shrinking formal sector has resulted in the emergence of a vibrant informal sector. While growth of the informal sector can be viewed as a positive development insofar as employment creation is concerned, the downside to it all is that informal sector enterprises tend to generate large quantities of solid waste, which can be detrimental to both the environment and the waste worker. Therefore, rapid growth of the informal sector can have dire environmental and occupational repercussions if there are no robust solid waste management systems in place. This is particularly so, given the fact that urban solid waste management still presents one of the greatest environmental challenges confronting developing countries.
Cognizant of all this, many concerns have been raised regarding the potential risks of solid waste to the environment and the general public, albeit little or no attention has been paid to the risks and consequent cost of occupational hazards in waste management. For this reason, Dr Steven Jerie, chairperson of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the Midlands State University undertook research to identify and analyse the occupational risks associated with solid waste management in the informal sector with reference to the City of Gweru.
The research revealed that there was little or no attention paid to hazard identification and risk assessment in solid waste management practices in Gweru’s informal sector largely due to the presumption that; however waste is handled, workers will either be protected by standing legislation and operating guidelines. In reality, this is not the case and occupational risks are present at every stage of the waste management process. For municipal solid waste workers for example, potential hazards include viruses, mycoplsmas, bacteria, fungi and cysts or eggs of intestinal parasites; secondary pathogens and their toxins, volatile and semi-volatile organic chemicals; persistent lipophilic organic chemicals; metals, and other organic materials and organometalics. Other potential risks include allergens from corrosive, caustic, explosive and sharp materials.
As a result, much has to be done to mitigate and address occupational risks associated with solid waste management. According to Dr Jerie’s study, there is need for urban authorities and central government together with various stakeholders in the informal sector to come up with effective and sustainable solid waste management systems. Dr Jerie highlights the need to establish a waste policy, which is currently not present, that provides a framework for the planning and organization of waste management activities. Additionally, he identifies the need to strengthen the enforcement of legislation that makes reference to environmental management and solid waste management.
Dr Jerie is a seasoned academic whose areas of interest include waste management, environmental management, climate change and occupational safety and health. Based on his research on ‘Occupational Risks Associated with Solid Waste Management in the Informal Sector of Gweru, Zimbabwe’ Dr Jerie won the first position award in the Occupational Safety and Health Research category at the Safety and Health at Work (SHAW) Conference held at the Rainbow Towers in Harare from the 30th of September to the 2nd of October 2015. The conference was organized by the National Social Security Authority (NSSA).