The Superhumans Behind the Garbage Trucks

This article was originally published in our Fall 2018 print issue.

When we think of dangerous jobs, we often think of the police officer on the streets fighting crimes or the firefighters rushing into a burning house to rescue families. Many of us do not think about our garbage man. Similarly, when we think of people on the front lines of protecting the health of our cities, on the front lines of public health, we may think of researchers, doctors, public health officials, and maybe even politicians. We do not often think of the 5 a.m. trash collector.

Sanitation work is one of the most overlooked, yet important, jobs in America, but many don’t expect it to be one of the most dangerous. But dangerous it is. According to TIME Magazine, sanitation work is the fifth most dangerous job in the United States, with 34.1 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers, only behind logging workers, fishermen, roofers, and aircraft pilots. However, sanitation workers are critical to the health of our population. Many of us cannot imagine what our lives would be like if nobody took away the approximate 250 million tons of trash we produce every year. Without sanitation workers, trash would accumulate in our streets, leak into our water supply, and spread devastating diseases, such as yellow fever and cholera, across our overcrowded cities.

If sanitation workers are such a critical part of our daily lives, why are they so underappreciated and why is their job so incredibly dangerous?

Dr. Robin Nagle, an anthropologist from New York City who joined The City of New York Department of Sanitation for several years, reports about her experience on the job in her book, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. She explains that there is no such thing as putting our trash in a place. We throw trash away.

Just this construction of the phrase represents our relationship with the trash we produce. “Throwing” implies that we want it as far from us as possible, and “away” signifies a place we cannot see. As soon as an object becomes trash, we no longer want to be even remotely associated with it.

Society does not pay much heed to workers in the trash industry. Trash is dirty and ugly and it reminds us of our never-ending waste. It makes us feel guilty, so we turn a blind eye to anything related to trash, including the people who work among the trash. According to Nagle, garbage workers are often stigmatized and discerned to be at the lowest level in society; teachers warn students to work harder in class to avoid becoming garbage men, and dating websites even use quotes such as “Why settle for a garbage man when you can have a stockbroker?”

Because we are so reluctant to hear about trash, we are also reluctant to hear about the people who work in the trash, and we often dehumanize them. Nagle explains that when sanitation workers put on their uniforms, they become invisible to the world. The general public does not perceive sanitation workers the same way as others around them. People rarely acknowledge their presence, insult them, and tragically, sanitation workers can even end up under the wheels of our cars, contributing to the extremely high mortality rate of 34.1 fatal injuries per 100,000.

Not only do sanitation workers suffer automobile injuries, but they are also often injured on the job as well when people are reckless with their garbage. Nagle describes the injuries sustained by sanitation workers as being poked by strange needles, cut by broken glass, and killed by improperly disposed of chemicals. In New York, in 1996, a sanitation worker was killed when a bag of trash filled with hydrochloric acid exploded and drenched the man picking it up. Nobody was ever held responsible.

While other public servants of New York receive benefits for the dangerous and essential services that they provide for the city, sanitation workers rarely receive any compensation. They do not receive discounts at restaurants or stores similar to firefighters and police officers, and unlike other public servants, they are not protected by policies passed by the government, such as health care coverage and paid leave. Sanitation workers are almost never thanked while on the job, and, if anything, are often met with insults due to noises from their equipment in the mornings.

In her book, however, Nagle describes that many sanitation workers take pride in their work. When two sanitation workers from UC Berkeley discussed their work at the University, they explained that they were proud to make Berkeley a campus conducive to learning. The Berkeley sanitation workers are proud to be cleaning up the classrooms, hallways, and bathrooms in the morning before the students wake up and come to class.

Sanitation workers are essential to public health and to our daily lives and they deserve more respect from all of us. Not only should we be mindful of our trash for environmental reasons but we should also be mindful that when we throw trash away it becomes someone else’s responsibility. We should all take an extra second every day to consider the extremely hardworking people who continually risk their lives to keep our cities clean. We can also consider offering up a bit of ourselves — a smile, a thank you, or a lending hand — when we run into one of these superhumans who work behind the wheels of the garbage trucks and on the streets of our cities.