This Common Job Is Stunningly Dangerous

What's it like being a garbage man?You may already know that a garbage man (very few women still opt for this job) is dirty work that won't get you rich. (The average salary is $27,000 a year.)

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."

More: Top 10 Most Dangerous Jobs

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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it's hard for the police to get hurt at the donut shop

September 09 2013 at 4:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Christopher Casiragh

Here's a Tip, I once was a branch manager for an Employment Agency and some of the local cities started running all of their sanitary workers thru my company so they could save the city or village money and not pay them benifits. So these workers were working one of the most dangerous jobs you could do with NO benifits. It was a shame but what was I to do? I knew they had one of the most dangerous jobs anyone could ever get because, and here's the TIP: The rate we had to pay for "workers comp" was the highest rate chargeable for any job. So In the future when you say there has never been a study done on it. or in your own words "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." Your probably right that nothing has ever been written about it in the news or reported on it, but the information is there if you know where to look for it. Check the rates for various jobs that Workers Comp Charges- they are the ones who pay the bills for injured workers, they know which jobs and how dangerous they actually are, to them its financial business, dollars and cents, risk analysis if you will. One of the most common injuries for a sanitation worker is twisted ankles and sometimes broken ankles from stepping on and off curbs all day. I am not a fan of Employment Agencies even though i once worked as a branch manager, I have seen how too many loop holes do not cover the worker and the employee gets taken advantage of but thats another story. Hope you find this useful information.

April 19 2013 at 3:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They need to wear headsets so they can talk to the driver. Moreso, while on the subject, you paid for everything in your garbage. If you have a lot of garbage, you are throwing away a lot of money.
How can you reduce the amount of garbage you create ? Think your purchases through. Instead of buying a jar of pickles for $1.99 buy two cuccumbers at 3/$1.00 or 66 cents. Cut them into "fresh" wedges and pickle them with 10 cents worth of vinegar, salt, water, and a pinch of dill. Save the $1.24 and don't put a lid and jar into your trash.
If you evaluate everything you buy, you'll get amazing savings, better quality, reduce your trash bag expense, save your back and the trash person's back.

April 04 2013 at 9:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Much of the danger is caused by the time pressure imposed by the employer. If a rider could take the time to communicate with the driver to not back up, not activate the lift, etc. while he is carrying out a particular act, many accidents could be avoided. Ditto with the handling of bags containing glass, etc.

At the very least, they should have earpieces and mikes with which they can communicate with each other.

BTW, broken glass should be inside of a taped up, sturdy cardboard box.

April 04 2013 at 5:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Our trash pickup here is all done with a robotic arm. The driver doesn't get out of the truck.

April 04 2013 at 4:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to isisreptiles's comment

Ours either. Herbie the Curbies have been around forever. I'd imagine where accidents are occuring is where the unions have blocked the use of automated trucks.

April 04 2013 at 5:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2012 Clark 2012

When i on summer break during my 5 th grade year in grade school i would go to the school and ride my bike around the school property for fun. Then one summer day i was lookiing inside the trash dumpster located in the school parking lot. I saw alot of used books and school stuff that was in the dumpster. I climbed in and started sifting through the books and suddenly a garbage truck stuck its large forks into the sides of the dumpster i quickly jumped up and saw the garbage truck drivers face through the truck windshield. He then put the truck in park and helped me get out of the dumpster. Then he called my parents and told them that i could have been killed if he had not seen me and i would have been dumped into the trucks dumpster cavity and then squished by the compactor.

April 04 2013 at 3:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I happen to have a friend who was standing on the back of a garbage truck doing routine pickups one day when coming down a hill the axel broke on the truck causing it to flip over on my friend who lost his leg in a freak accident. Yes I say there is danger . wouldn't you ?

April 04 2013 at 1:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

don't know where they say they only make $27,000 and where do police officers make only twice...or firefighters make so little....NOT IN NEW YORK....

April 04 2013 at 12:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Our Garbage man does not even get out of his truck ...On our garbage pick up day !

April 03 2013 at 11:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Totally agree on the danger. When I was 19 years old I was working in a sporting goods store in NJ. At the end of the night the garbage truck would come over and the employees had to help load cardboard and other garbage bags into the back of the dumpster. No dirt or grime, simple trash. One would think this is as safe as tossing trash into a trash bin. One evening seconds after I had thrown in a bag, a huge metal chain shot out of the compacter and hit the payment, missing me by inches. I then realized just how dangerous it can be.

April 03 2013 at 11:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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