Although it may seem like just another public works issue with no real connection to our everyday lives, waste management practices should be a concern for anyone who wants to live in a clean, safe environment. While most people work hard to do their part, it’s important to remember that the real work happens once your trash is cleared away.
Working in waste management is a tough, yet admirable job, but it’s also one that can seriously jeopardize workers’ health. And it’s not just risky; it’s apparently deadly as well. Waste and recyclables collection is the fifth most dangerous job in the country—right up there with loggers, fishermen, and pilots. The mortality rate hovers around 35.8 per 100,000; in 2014, there were 27 fatalities in the US trash and recyclables collection industry. It’s unfortunate that the people who keep our cities clean and safe from disease and pests—a vastly important responsibility—are exposed to such danger.
By definition, waste management is the overarching process of handling human trash from the moment it’s tossed away until its final disposal. Workers in the industry transport, collect, sort, treat, recycle, and dispose of all types of waste—municipal, agricultural, industrial, medical, and several others. No matter how you look at it, waste collection is a massive industry that demands a massive effort.
Workers are exposed to risk due to the potentially dangerous materials they may handle, the heavy vehicles and machinery they work with, and other factors. Sharp objects in the trash can cause cuts and lacerations. Garbage collectors working on busy city streets may be struck by passing cars. Even landfills and waste sorting facilities can be dangerous places to work, due to the large industrial vehicles and garbage trucks driving about.
Here’s a closer look at these and some other serious risks that waste workers face every day.
- Disease: Waste is dirty and it can draw some pretty unwelcome characters, namely rats. These rodents can carry serious diseases such as rate-bite fever and leptospirosis, both of which are highly contagious and can cause severe illness in humans.
- Harmful Byproducts: The substances that are produced as waste decomposes over time, like landfill gas and leachate, are highly potent and toxic to living organisms.
Leachate is water that has come into contact with landfill waste—it forms when rainfall seeps through the waste in a landfill, becoming contaminated and leaking out. Modern landfills are designed to minimize the formation of leachate, and all landfills in the US must be lined to reduce groundwater pollution. Older landfills may not have these protections in place, however.
Landfill gas is similarly produced as microorganisms work to break down the waste in a landfill. Much landfill gas is methane and carbon dioxide. These gases can be volatile, so there is a risk of fire or explosion if they accumulate in a nearby building. Regulations demand that landfill operators monitor landfill gas emissions, but there’s still a risk.
- Hidden Bacteria: Biowaste, especially food scraps, often contain large amounts of harmful bacteria. Because bacteria feed and grow on decaying organic matter, it can pose a risk of illness to workers. Some pathogens found in animal waste that are resistant to heat, cold, and desiccation can lead to serious infections and pulmonary distress. Think tetanus and botulism.
- Hazardous Materials: Disposal of hazardous waste is subject to different laws and regulations, and it’s handled separately from regular municipal solid waste in the US. Still, municipal waste workers may encounter what we call “household hazardous waste”—the everyday items that may contain smaller amounts of hazardous materials, as opposed to the hazardous waste produced by factories, mines, oil refineries, and other large-scale commercial and industrial operations. Paints, dyes, electronics, motor oil, antifreeze, and aerosol cans are just some examples of household hazardous waste. Most laws prevent these from being deposited in landfills, but workers may still have to collect and sort them.
- Busy Traffic: For someone who collects waste, this is a serious concern. A large number of worker deaths each year can be attributed to vehicular incidents where impatient drivers try to pass stopped garbage vehicles and end up hitting collectors.
- Heavy Machinery: Heavy equipment used at recycling centers, landfills, and waste sorting facilities can pose a serious risk to workers. If the machines aren’t maintained properly and necessary precautions aren’t followed, workers can be crushed by forklifts, compacting and baling machines, and even piles of materials. Rotating and moving parts on conveyer belts and sorting machines can crush fingers and limbs. In addition, some garbage collection workers have been accidentally killed by being backed-over by trucks.
Waste collection and management is such a vital part of our everyday life, and the people who work in the industry play a big role in keeping our cities clean and safe, and business running smoothly. Garbage is dirty, dangerous, and unfortunately for us, something that has to be handled professionally. So take a moment to slow down when you see a trash collector, and give them the space they need—and maybe even a smile of gratitude.