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Get Wasted: Some Surprising Aspects of Working in Waste Management


When you throw something into your trash can, do you still think about it? Unless you mistakenly threw something important, like a receipt or some money, you might not even remember that you’ve thrown away something.

How about the people who take that garbage away? Do you ever think about them? You’ve probably called them garbage men in the past, but the more technical terms are waste disposal engineer or sanitation worker.  These hardworking men and women (99 percent of waste disposal engineers are men; there are over a thousand women in the industry) are responsible for keeping cities and communities free from the hazards of overflowing garbage.  Waste disposal activities, such as services that transport hazardous materials, play an important role in maintaining the health of a country.

Working in sanitation has its ups and downs, just like any other business. Sometimes workers have to deal with possible viral contamination — and sometimes they find treasures.

A Dangerous Trade

Being a waste disposal engineer can be dangerous. It was the sixth deadliest job in America in 2013, with a fatality rate of 33 out of 100,000. It leaped to being the fifth in 2016 because of a surge in fatalities due to car crashes and other auto accidents. Experts believe that careless motorists in a hurry to drivearound garbage trucks that were doing their rounds contributed to this spike in casualties.

The nature of the material they haul away also puts their safety in jeopardy. In 14th century Europe, people called the first sanitary workers “rakers.” When the Black Death, a virulent and potent plague, swept through the continent, rakers had to collect and take away the bodies of people who had succumbed to the disease. This made them prime targets for the contagion.

Modern-day waste disposal practices and technology have mitigated the threat of infection and contamination. But sanitary workers still have to collect refuse of all kinds, which sometimes include medical waste and bodily excretions.

Sanitary workers face many hazards when they do their rounds, but their job isn’t just a constant barrage of health threats.

A Rewarding Profession

People occasionally throw away things that are in perfect working condition or just need a few repairs. Sanitary workers notice these discarded materials and take them for their own use. They can sell or repurpose everything, from old or malfunctioning television sets to unused bicycles. One sanitary worker claimed that lots of Americans think that heavily clogged vacuum cleaners are broken and toss them in the trash. With a little tinkering, they find new homes for these appliances.

Some communities also train their sanitary workers to help local law enforcement in keeping watch over neighborhoods. They point out houses that could be the targets of burglars, watch out for possible signs of criminal activities, and other details that might help thwart criminals when they go about their rounds.

Sanitation work is hard work, but it’s an important part of a nation’s infrastructure. Without the services of these people, all manner of health issues could become rampant. Maybe people should spend more time thinking about what they throw away, and how to help and respect the men and women who take it away.

Oliver Beau Martinez: Oliver, a home security expert, provides recommendations on security systems, safety tips, and ways to make homes more secure.