City officials from Haarlem, a Dutch city in which one of the first scientific studies on the workload of refuse collectors was performed, wanted to compare the work situation and physical workload in 1997 with the results of a study performed in Haarlem in 1985 and with the results of a national study conducted in 1993. Depending on the results, they wanted to implement effective preventive measures. The present study consisted of a field study, a simulation experiment in the laboratory, and a questionnaire concerning work characteristics and health effects among 18 refuse collectors. The work situation and the energetic workload were not more favourable in Haarlem in 1997 compared to Haarlem of 1985 or the national study conducted in 1993. On several important parameters, such as the time carrying plastic bags or pushing containers, amount of refuse collected and percentage VO(2max) during a working day, the results in the present study did not differ from those in earlier studies. However, the working postures and the perceived exertion of the refuse collectors in Haarlem in 1997 were more favourable when compared to the refuse collectors in the national study. The results have convinced the management to plan an intervention study of potentially effective measures to improve the work situation and to reduce the physical workload. Planned measures are the introduction of job rotation, an effective work-rest schedule and the redesign of two-wheeled containers. Relevance to industry. This study shows that a comparison of the work situation and physical workload with former studies is an effective way to address the issue of preventive measures. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.