But what most people don't know is that it's also incredibly dangerous work. Sanitation workers experience twice the fatality rates of police officers (who earn nearly twice as much) and nearly seven times the rate of firefighters, according to a just published, and first of its kind, cultural study, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City.
Written by New York University anthropologist Robin Nagle, the book details the ins and outs of the "mini-society known as New York's Department of Sanitation," in the words of The Atlantic. The book provides insight into the daily life of New York's garbage men, from the actual experience of picking up trash to the inside slang shared by sanitation workers. In order to conduct her research, Nagle passed exams so that she actually could work side by side sanitation workers.
Along the way, Nagle learned why the work is so dangerous. As she explained,
"Think about what you throw away, or what you see other people throw away, if you live in a multi-unit building. Most of us see household trash with some frequency. If you just pause and actually look at it you can very quickly discern objects that, if they were in the home, we would be very quick to segregate so they would not harm us. I'm thinking of things like broken glass or wood with nails sticking out of it or various household chemical substances that in small quantities, safely kept, are not necessarily going to harm us, but spilling out of a bag and catching the body of a worker can do great harm."
In the interview with the Atlantic, Nagle expressed shock, even delight, over the lack of prior academic research into the world of sanitation. "That no one had done this kind of project with sanitation was an oversight, and it was my good fortune because I got to step into it," she said.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely ranks sanitation worker as one of the top 10 dangerous jobs, as workers have been killed by handling hazardous materials and run over. Brian French, a sanitation worker, told AOL Jobs that he was nearly crushed to death during a routine garbage run. French had just stepped off the curb into the street; the driver backed up and didn't notice French was walking towards the back of the garbage truck. A few years ago, a New York City sanitation worker Eva Barrientos, 41, was killed when she tried to remove trash that had clogged the truck's compactor; she was crushed by a lever lifting a steel trash bin.
Perhaps as a result of both the necessity and difficulty of the work, the role of sanitation worker in America emerged as a talking point in the most recent presidential election. After Republican candidate Mitt Romney's comment deriding 47 percent "dependent" on the government was leaked, President Barack Obama tried to use it to depict Romney as out of touch with working Americans. And who did the president decide to feature in a major advertisement? Mitt Romney's personal garbage man, of course.
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