If you work in an office, you probably create some form of waste. Eventually, someone has to dispose of that waste safely and properly. Taking out the trash seems simple—after all, you do it at home every week. But every workplace has its hazards, and you may be disposing of your office's trash improperly and putting your employees at risk in the process.

Garbage collection is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. While many of those dangers come from working on garbage trucks and being vulnerable on busy streets, there are other dangers that can affect someone taking out trash in an office setting. While garbage collectors are trained on how to avoid trash-related hazards and properly equipped with protection, your average office employee might not be. With a number of risks involved, from sharp objects to hazardous materials, it is important to learn how to safely handle and dispose of waste.

What Is Trash?

When you refer simply to “trash” or “garbage,” you can be talking about a huge variety of different materials. When most people use those words, they tend to refer to something called municipal waste. Municipal waste is made up of the general everyday items thrown away by the public. In developed countries, municipal waste consists mainly of items that cannot be recycled.

While municipal waste generally gets the most attention, there are several types of waste created by different industries, including hazardous waste, chemical waste, and organic waste. Different types of waste require different handling and disposal techniques as they can often have negative effects on the environment if disposed of improperly. In an office setting, municipal waste will likely make up all or most of the waste created (learn more in The Importance of Waste from a Health and Safety Perspective).

Why So Dangerous?

So what is it that makes disposing of trash so potentially hazardous? One of the big reasons is the potential for sustaining punctures or lacerations from sharp objects discarded with the trash, such as broken glass or pieces of metal. Garbage collectors are usually outfitted with protective clothing to prevent injuries like this, but an office worker is not likely to have the same kind of equipment.

Ergonomic injures are another concern when disposing of trash. Lifting a heavy trash bag can result in lower back injuries and may damage the spine, especially if you are not using proper lifting technique. An employee could easily injure themselves by trying to move a heavy trash bag without asking for help. Taking out the trash can also result in slip and fall injuries, especially during wet or icy parts of the year. If trash is spilled and not cleaned up properly it can also create a slipping hazard.

Improper trash handling can also expose employees to pests or microbes. Office trash often has food mixed in with other garbage. When food is left to sit for long periods of time without being refrigerated, it can attract pests like mice and bugs. Spoiled food can promote the growth of microbes that can spread disease. Trash should never be handled without gloves.

Top 5 Tips for Safe Trash Handling

While handling office trash can be dangerous, with proper preparation and training it can be done safely. Here are 5 tips to keep in mind the next time you take out the trash:

1. Proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Trash is not just old paper products or food scraps; it can contain glass or metal that can cause cuts in the hands and arms. Wearing puncture resistant work gloves and sleeves is a must if you have to sort or dig through a trash bin. You might also need liquid resistance if your trash has any moisture in it.

2. Lift Safely

One third of work-related injuries in the United States are back injuries. Many back injuries are caused by overexertion when lifting or carrying an object. Trash can easily become too heavy for one person to lift safely. It is tempting to compress trash to avoid taking it out—and then you soon find it overfull, heavy, and unsafe (learn about Back Safety & Lifting Techniques).

Purchasing smaller trash cans is an easy fix to this problem. You can also place a false bottom inside the trash can to stop overfilling. To do that, simply place an object like a cardboard box underneath and outside the bag so that when it appears full it will not be as heavy as a bag that reached all the way to the bottom. Another option is tying off trash bags when they are half full to make sure they don’t get too heavy and can be sealed off completely.

3. Don’t Compact by Hand

If a trash bag is overfilled and hard to close, most people don't think twice before compressing it with their hand to create more room in the bag. This can be dangerous. There could be a sharp or pointy object in the trash obscured from your view that you won’t notice until it is too late. While proper PPE can help prevent hand punctures, the best way to stay safe is to simply not overfill your trash bags and never compress by hand.

4. Watch for Suction Problems

A full trash bag can create a vacuum that makes removing it from the garbage can difficult. Instead of straining yourself trying to pull it out, or risking spilling the contents, try to relieve the built up pressure by tipping the can slightly. You can also prevent the vacuum by taping a tube inside the trash can that will allow the air to vent.

5. Wash Your Hands

The importance of washing your hands should go without saying. You should already be washing your hands continuously throughout the day. After handling trash or moving trash bags, it is important to wash your hands before returning to work to avoid spreading contaminants. Gloves should also be worn before handling trash.

Take Out the Trash

When it comes to office safety, don’t take any chances. Taking out the trash may seem safe and simple, but it can become a significant hazard if done improperly. But with the right training and equipment, you can take out the trash and get back to work, safely.