Garbage collector David Richard was on his usual pickup route in Boca Raton, Florida, when a fluke accident ended his life. No one knows what happened, but Richards was standing behind his truck when it started moving in reverse. It knocked him over, dragging him 20 feet before crashing through a fence. Firefighters found him dead when they arrived.
At first glance, garbage collecting may not seem extremely hazardous. But research shows that it can in fact be both dangerous and even deadly. Although refuse collection may seem routine, federal data shows the job is often more deadly than those of police and fire fighters. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 400 garbage collectors died each year in work-related accidents between 2016 and 2020. Two thirds of th deaths tend to be vehicle related, and many occurred when the worker slipped or fell from a refuse-collection truck and was struck or run over by their own vehicle. But others occur because drivers following the truck get impatient and try to speed around it, often colliding with a sanitation worker on the side.
Also potentially menacing are the contents of trashcans. Into them, heedless owners sometimes dump broken glass, cat and dog excrement, and chemical waste -- one garbage collector in New York City died recently after inhaling fumes from a hazardous chemical someone had illegally poured into a trashcan. Garbage collectors are often disconcerted to find more than garbage in trashcans and dumpsters, including carcasses of pets and possums, broken glass, syringes, even slumbering homeless people.
"Some people put dead animals in their trash cans [instead of calling Animal Control]," says Ira Janowitz, a consultant in California who has conducted safety trainings for garbage collectors. "That's heavy stuff."
Like other professions that require physical labor, garbage collecting can put tremendous strain on your body as well. In some cities, trash pickup crews still run an average of 20 miles a day behind moving garbage trucks. "Vehicular traffic and repeated lifting while on the run causes thousands of crippling injuries each year," says labor historian Earl Dotter.
Some injuries stem from constantly repeating awkward movements, such as jumping in and out of garbage trucks and lifting cans that can sometimes weigh 100 pounds or more. The weight and the often-awkward positions can cause back strain and ankle sprains. And on days when the road is slick, lifting heavy cans can lead to a nasty fall, especially since collectors never know what to expect. "The cans vary widely and unpredictably in weight, which is a big problem," Janowitz says. Now that many trucks have lifts, that is less of a hazards, but slips are still an issue.
Louis Montana can attest to that. On a wet day last spring, the Walnut Creek, California, garbage collector was hauling a trashcan from a customer's house out to his truck when he slipped on the pavement.
"I was rolling the can out and it fell out of my hands. I bent over too far to grab it, and it sort of fell on my foot. I could feel that I had pulled something inside," Montano says. He went home in pain, and although he's back at work, he still feels pain late at night.
A doctor who later examined Montano diagnosed a hernia; Montano said he expects to have an operation soon. It's not the first injury he has suffered during his 14 years as a garbage collector. Ten years ago, he strained his back badly while on his daily route. "I felt [a slight pain] but I finished the day that time," he says. "But the next day I couldn't even tie my shoes. The doctor gave me cortisone shots in my back, and I went back to work a few days later."
According to a University of Miami report, garbage collectors suffer the most injuries to their lower backs and are plagued with fractured feet, bruised knees, and torn hands from picking up so many cans as well. Another study conducted in Denmark indicates that garbage collectors are twice as likely to suffer from stomach problems than the general workforce, and they are also many more times likely to suffer allergies, infections, and respiratory problems. Because of such hazards, the number of workers compensation cases filed by garbage collectors in some areas is 7.4 times that of the general workforce, according to a Florida study.
Dave Biderman, general counsel for the Environmental Industry Association, a trade group, says that companies in the industry provide extensive training on how to prevent injuries. He notes that some areas now have fully automated trash-collection systems, in which trucks have an arm that lifts curbside cans on its own. Others have semi-automated systems, in which residents wheel a container out to the curb, a worker pulls it to the truck, and a hydraulically powered arm dumps the trash into the hopper. Since these systems involve less lifting, this translates into fewer injuries and less contact with refuse material. But even automatic systems have their own set of hazards, Biderman says: "The moving metal arm can potentially [crush] an employee."
The risk of needle sticks and exposure to infectious diseases is a particular concern on routes near medical facilities, according to John Plumos, the business representative for Teamsters Local 315 in Contra Costa County, California. Collectors on those routes get needle sticks "quite often," he says. So far, however, he has heard of no reports of anyone becoming infected with HIV, Hepatitis B or C, or other infectious diseases as a result.
Even though it's illegal to dump medical waste in trashcans used by the public, Plumos says it's an all-too-common violation. "Hospitals and nursing homes are supposed to treat needles and unused medicines and throwaway [intravenous] units differently than normal garbage and put it in what they call a 'red bag,'" Plumos says. "But that's more expensive, so sometimes they try to get away with pitching it into their regular debris box."
Other residents unknowingly create havoc for sanitation workers when they pour kitty litter directly into the can rather than sealing it in a plastic bag. Exposure to cat feces can cause toxoplasmosis, a disease that attacks the nervous system. If an employee is pregnant, the disease can seriously harm the fetus.
Despite these hazards, Janowitz says working conditions have improved over the past 20 years. Trash containers have gotten lighter because many cities have adopted smaller trashcans. Some city garbage collectors have also won the right to refuse to pick up cans filled with unsealed animal waste, such as kitty litter and manure.
To avoid injuries and minimize exposure to job hazards, NIOSH recommends the following steps be taken:
- Train drivers and collectors to be aware of the hazardous areas around a refuse-collection vehicle.
- If you're picking up garbage, ride in the vehicle cab when traveling to or between collection routes rather than on the side step. If there aren't enough seats in the cab for collectors, they should be transported to the job site by separate vehicle.
- Use the riding steps on the side of the refuse vehicle only when moving forward for short distances and only at speeds of 10 mph or less. Don't stand on the steps when the vehicle is backing up; you could slip off and be run over. Step on or off the riding steps (rather than jump on them), and mount or dismount them only when the vehicle's at a complete standstill.
- Use extreme caution when backing up and always keep workers on foot in your line of vision. If visual contact is lost, drivers should stop the vehicle immediately.
- Wear safety equipment at all times. This includes highly visible colored clothing, slip- resistant footwear (avoid shoes with very narrow cleats or spikes that might get caught in open mesh riding steps), and protective eyewear such as goggles.
To avoid the risk of infection, workers should be up to date on their tetanus shots (one every 10 years); they may also want to consider a hepatitis B vaccine on the advice of their physician. Garbage collectors should also wear protective gear, including goggles, nose-and-mouth masks, and heavy gloves. Many workers, like Montano, also keep towels and containers of clean water around to scrub themselves during breaks.
Experts recommend that workers take advantage of other safety technology as well. Small compressed-gas horns can be worn on the belt and sounded if the workers trip or falls. Two-way radios can help workers on foot communicate with the driver. Rearview mirrors should be convex to reduce blind spots around the vehicle.
Vehicles can also be equipped with sensor technology, which triggers an alarm if a person or object is in the path of a backing vehicle. (This would help prevent some of the tragic incidents of trash collectors run over by their own colleagues, who couldn't see them.) And strategically placed guards or extended bodywork on the vehicle can prevent workers from falling into the path of moving wheels.
Not that the automated systems are foolproof. They're not necessarily suitable for routes with lots of hills, fat leafy trees, and overhead wires, Plumos says. On hills, some of the garbage can spill onto the street, and wires that get in the way of the moving arm are an electrocution hazard. In those areas, garbage must be collected the old-fashioned way -- by hand.
Because it's hard, dirty work, garbage collectors do tend to draw support from the public, even when their trash piles up during a garbage strike. That's one reason that garbage collectors generally make more than some people in white-collar jobs.
In many cities, in fact, being a garbage collector is a prized civil-service job, according to Ron Howell in his recent book One Hundred Jobs. One 41-year-old sanitation worker he interviewed said he preferred his job to any other, partly because it was well-paid. "This is the best job I've ever had with the city," the worker told Howell. He added that he knew he was in a good position when people in suits walked up and asked him how to apply for a job as trash collector.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA creates and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) oversees research on occupational safety and health. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Worker Safety and Health, BLS Spotlight on Statistics.
Dirty and Dangerous. Community Associations Institute.
Health Risk for a Garbage Man. Chron.com.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Services. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/pps/risks.html
NIOSH Alert: Preventing Worker Injuries and Deaths from Moving Refuse Collection Vehicles.