Belabored Stories: The Dangers of Sanitation WorkBreaking News
tags: labor, COVID-19
Sanitation work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States at the best of times; during a pandemic, it becomes even more so. Kevin Clark works at Republic Services, one of the largest waste hauling companies in America, and he is a member of Teamsters Local 667 in Memphis, Tennessee. (It’s worth remembering that it was Memphis sanitation workers whose 1968 strike against awful working conditions brought Martin Luther King Jr. to the city where he was assassinated; there the workers, all of them black, marched carrying signs that read “I Am A Man.”) Clark has been with Republic for twenty years and in that time has repeatedly fought the company over personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety concerns.
In those twenty years, Clark’s never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic, though. He and his fellow drivers “are afraid right now,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re being exposed to.” The company’s stepped-up safety procedures amount to “a big bucket of wipes in the break room. And they have given us black surgical gloves that the mechanics use when they’re working on the vehicles, but other than that we don’t have any kind of surgical masks or protective equipment.”
The daily routine hasn’t changed much for Clark, but for other drivers things have changed—commercial waste pickup is way down because restaurants and other customer-facing businesses are closed. But the pandemic shows just how untenable the normal conditions of the job are.
Years ago, Clark said, they used to have PPE for the drivers that hauled asbestos, but about six years back they stopped giving them the safety gear. “They said we didn’t need it. They used to make us take a test—we would have to go see a doctor, and they would give us a breath test to see how our breathing was, and they would give us respirators and the Tyvek suits, so when we did have to haul it, we would be protected, and they took that away from us.” Since then, he said, they’ve been fighting for protective gear. “We used to have customers that dealt with sewage, human waste, and we asked for [PPE] to keep it from splashing on us when they were dumping the loads, and they wouldn’t give it to us then.” Fast forward to today, when, he said, they still pick up waste from six hospitals in Memphis, and though different drivers pick up the hospital waste—including, he said, “the blood and amputated body parts and stuff like that, needles”—it gets dumped in with the regular trash. “When the bulldozer pushes it up, it still leaves the stuff on the ground, and you’re walking on it. We’ve complained, and every now and then they move it, but then they put it right back in the regular garbage.”
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