A legacy of safety: The Waste Connections story

Oct 12, 2021

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A while ago, an email popped up in my inbox that I’d been crossing my fingers for.

It informed me that I’d landed a job interview at Waste Connections.

I scuffled into the designated boardroom that day – resumè and manila folder of notes in hand – way too early (by about half an hour, if I remember correctly), and nervously sipped from my water bottle while waiting for my potential future boss to come into the room.

He did, and sat down across from me. The details of the first few words he spoke to me are fuzzy in my memory, but I remember a couple of sentences that he said very clearly: “We pride ourselves in our exceptional safety record. We are one of the safest companies in this industry.”

So before I even started working here, I learned up-front that safety is something Waste Connections takes very seriously – and for good reason.

But we didn’t get here by accident. Having one of the most stellar safety records in our industry isn’t a badge we won by happenstance. This spot is one we’ve worked very hard to earn over the years.

A few days ago, I sat down with Chris Childers, the Regional Safety Manger for the Eastern Region – who enlisted the help of a couple of other members of our safety department – to dig a little deeper into our story and our legacy of safety.

“It all goes back to our operating values. We put safety first,” Childers said. “And because we put safety first, everything else comes after that. If we truly care more about safety than anything else, that means that we care more about our people going home to their families each night than we do about just picking up trash.”

In our industry, the concept of safety didn’t start being seriously explored until the 1950s, according to Region Safety Manager Mark Avey.

Then, OSHA was created in 1970. About 30 years later, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration – or the FMCSA – was established in 2000.

“OSHA obviously focuses on safety in the workplace, while the FMCSA focuses on highway safety in particular,” Avey said. “The goal of the FMCSA is to prevent motor vehicle-related fatalities or injuries. Since we operate commercial motor vehicles on public roadways, it’s our obligation to keep both our employees and the general public safe.”

But Waste Connections’ relationship with safety hasn’t always looked the way it looks today. It’s taken a lot of intentionality and effort over the years.

Waste Connections was started back in 1997, but the Servant Leadership structure wasn’t introduced until 2005. Our core values were also instituted in 2005 – with the first value being safety.

Between 1997 and 2005, turnover was around 40 percent. By the end of 2010 though, turnover had dropped all the way down to 17 percent!

“And of course, turnover is directly related to safety. If you have a lot of turnover at a site, you can always see a direct correlation with safety there,” Childers said. “If you have less people, you’re scrambling to try to fill routes and positions. If you’re down, say, 10 people, that puts a strain on everyone else – and if you’re feeling rushed while you’re working, that can lead to mishaps.”

It became apparent pretty early on in Waste Connections’ history that keeping existing employees is much more beneficial than hiring and re-training new ones. That’s when the Servant Leadership management model entered the scene and changed the whole game.

“Servant Leadership means addressing your teams’ needs and caring about them on a personal level, outside of work. If you don’t know your people, if you can’t connect with them on some level that goes beyond picking up trash, they won’t trust you,” Childers said. “Once you start truly caring about your people, you get their buy-in and it just makes everything so much better. If you can create a culture that nobody wants to leave, you’ve found the keys to Servant Leadership.”

The very next year, in 2006, “Target District” was implemented, putting more focus on districts with higher turnover rates and higher I-rates, or “Incident Rates.” More and more attention was placed on getting these Target Districts the resources they needed, from more people to more specialized training programs.

“Another item that really became a game-changer for us was the introduction of event-recording technology, like Drivecam or Third Eye,” Childers said. “By 2007, event-recording technology was officially introduced to all of our fleets, and we can use the cameras as a coaching tool. Also, in a lot of cases, we use the cameras to exonerate us from incidents involving serious crashes with our trucks.”

Even beyond these initiatives, each incident undergoes extensive research with what we call an IRB – or “Incident Review Board” – to determine whether or not the incident was at all preventable. If the answer is yes, the team undergoes additional coaching.

By 2010, we had a company I-rate of 26. It continued to fall all the way down to 12.5 until 2016, when we merged with Progressive Waste Solutions and essentially doubled the size of our company.

“Today, Waste Connections’ I-rate is at 15.4, despite larger acquisitions every year and a fleet of well over 16,000 vehicles,” Childers said. “So, this truly is a great place to work. Between our Servant Leadership ideals and safety-driven culture, we really do put our people and their families first.”

But being a member of Waste Connections’ safety department comes with a lot of responsibility and a lot of challenges.

“If you’re coming into this line of work, you have to be humble. You have to be ready to travel and keep a flexible schedule because anything might come up at any time,” Childers said. “A huge lesson that I’ve learned throughout my professional development is the importance of building relationships. When I first started, I thought people would call me just because they have to call me … but people won’t call you if they don’t trust you.”

This hands-on approach to management is exactly what Servant Leadership is all about. And caring about our people and our customers is exactly what Waste Connections is all about.

Chris Childers perfectly sums of a sentiment that I think a lot of us can echo: “I just never want to work for another company. This company cares so much about its people, and I’m just blessed to get to work here.”

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