Waste workers

Status: Completed


NFA – Anne Mette Madsen (AMM@NFA.DK)



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Researchers, stakeholders, engineering consultants, professionals, policy makers, safety officers in OSH

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The biological working environment of waste collection workers

Occupational exposure to microorganisms as related to new waste sorting instructions and the associated reduced frequency rate of waste collection.


Recycling is increasing globally, and waste is sorted into new and different fractions. Due to the reduced frequency rate with which specific types of waste are collected, combined with overall rising temperatures, we expect an increased microbial growth in this waste. Furthermore, with the expanded sorting, we expect workers at sorting plants to come into closer proximity to the waste.

To address health concerns associated with this new waste management process, it is necessary to characterise the workers’ exposure and the inflammatory and infective potential of this exposure.

The aims of this project are to:

  • exchange and develop knowledge in this area,
  • review the literature,
  • point towards solutions on how to reduce waste workers’ bioaerosol exposure.

Outcomes/expected results

A workshop was held in Copenhagen (NFA) on the 4th to the 5th of December, 2018. In preparation for the workshop and the review paper, we have gathered literature on the topic in the form of tables with titles of papers and national reports. The first topic for the workshop will be scientific presentations from the participating research groups. The main outcomes of the project are a scientific review paper and knowledge exchange.

Update: 15 September 2021

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 use 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.



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