PEROSH joint research project: The biological working environment of waste collection workers

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In many European countries, the management of household waste has recently changed with an increased focus upon waste sorting resulting in lower collection waste frequency for some waste fractions. A consequence of this is the potential for increased growth of microorganisms in the waste before collection, which can lead to an increased exposure via inhalation for waste collection workers. Through a review of the literature, the PEROSH-group aimed to evaluate factors affecting waste collection workers’ exposure to bioaerosols and risks caused by the exposure to bioaerosols – and to illuminate potential measures to reduce the exposure.

The process of the project was divided into three parts

  • A workshop where participants presented their recent work concerning the working environment of waste collection workers; the workshop was open for invited OSH professionals, interest groups, workers’ unions, and employers’ associations in Denmark.
  • A workshop for the group where the aim and organization of the review paper was described.
  • Review of the literature and writing of the scientific paper.  

Main results from the review

  • The following factors were associated with reduced exposure: high loading, ventilation in and cleaning of drivers’ cabs, waste in sealed sacks, increased collection frequency, and use of hand sanitizer.
  • Incidences of irritation of the eye and skin, gastrointestinal problems, and symptoms of organic dust toxic syndrome have been reported.
  • Correlations between bioaerosol exposure level and reduced lung function as either a short or a long-term effect have been reported.
  • Exposure to fungi and endotoxin has in some studies been associated with an inflammatory response measured in exposed workers.

Main messages

  • A better understanding of the effect of specific microbial species on health outcomes is needed to proceed to a more reliable risk assessment.
  • Changes in waste handling due to implementation of better waste recycling and a circular economy may have an impact on occupational exposures
  • Due to the effects of global warming and to the increasing recycling, exposure to microorganisms and endotoxin in this working environment is expected to increase.
  • It is important to look ahead and plan future studies as well as to improve methods to prevent long and short-term health effects.

During the work with this project the researchers from the different PEROSH institutes have made a foundation for a network which we are looking forward to be used in future projects.

The review paper has been published with open access in Science of the total Environment:  Madsen AM, Raulf M, Duquenne P, Graff P, Cyprowski M, Beswick A, Laitinen S, Rasmussen PU, Hinker M, Kolk A, Górny RL, Oppliger A, Crook B. Review of biological risks associated with the collection of municipal wastes. Science of the Total Environment 2021:148287.

More information
Anne Mette Madsen, NFA,

Project status: Completed
Project leader: NFA
Members: INRS, STAMI, CIOP-PIB, AUVA, Unisanté, IFA, FIOH, HSE, IPA, and NFA
Target groups: OSH researchers, OSH professionals, policy makers, safety officers

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PEROSH comprises 14 Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) institutes

The PEROSH partners aim to coordinate and cooperate on European research and development efforts in occupational safety and health.

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