COLUMBIA — A dirty-looking garbage truck pulled over in front of a house near Clark Lane and McKee Street in the northeastern side of the city on a Thursday afternoon. The truck, giving off a putrid odor of decaying trash, was half-stuffed with black trash bags sweltering in the summer heat.
Drew Smith, wearing a neon green reflective shirt and thick gloves, jumped off and swiftly picked up a couple of trash bags on the right side of the road, and threw them into the truck. Henry Chapman, the driver, also got off to pick up the trash on the left side of the road. They jumped onto the truck and drove to the next house.
This is what the city's 28 residential refuse workers do eight hours a day, five days a week. They stop at 800 to 1,100 houses per day, and the majority have three or four bags, refuse collection supervisor Jeff Hether said. That’s thousands of repetitions of heavy lifting and throwing. Some bags weigh more than 50 pounds, despite a city rule that says they must weigh less than that.
“Our guys are in the repetitive motion of picking up bags every single day, loading them up, putting them in the trucks. And then you’re gonna wear out things in your body,” collection superintendent Nick Paul said.
The safety of workers is one of the reasons the Public Works Department staff is proposing that the city convert to roll carts and new trucks to automate the process of lifting garbage onto the truck. The move, they expect, would sharply reduce the number of injuries among sanitation workers and cut the cost of workers compensation claims by 75 percent, or nearly $100,000 per year, according to a report by the Public Works Department.
Shoulder and back strains are the most common injuries for lifting jobs. Almost all refuse collectors suffer from different degrees of muscle strains. Jamal Joymer, 26, has been working as a refuse collector for two years. He said he has muscle strain in his back from excessive lifting of heavy bags.
Injuries also happen when workers are stepping off the truck and onto the curb while the trucks move slowly forward. On April 14, Ben Goodwin took six days off due to injuries to his left foot and knee when he was getting in and out of the truck, said Hether, who keeps an attendance book.
Sharp items in trash bags such as needles, nails and broken glass also pose a big threat to workers’ safety. Mylonyo Cunningham, a part-time employee, hurt his leg on June 4. Hether recalled that Cunningham was throwing a bag into a truck when something in the bag cut his calf and caused a gash that required stitches. He reported to work the next day.
Workers who get injured at work and seek medical treatment are covered under workers’ compensation, Risk Manager Sarah Perry said. The money also covers lost wages if a doctor decides a worker's injury prevents him or her from doing the job.
Solid Waste Utility Manager Richard Wieman said the compensation for residential refuse collectors amounts to $6,000 to $7,000 a month on average. There were several significant injuries in fiscal 2011. Thirteen claims were filed, and the compensation totaled $127,865, according to a report by the Risk Management.
Perry said the amount takes up 10 to 13 percent of the city’s total workers’ compensation. “This is a fairly large figure for a city government division,” she said.
Among all the 40 or so city divisions, residential refuse collection ranked third in terms of total compensation in 2011, only after fire emergency services and fleet operations, whose cost of claims were $242,736 and $193,817 respectively, according to the same report.
The city has taken some measures to promote safety. It encourages trash collectors to wear protective gloves and thick jeans. Paul said the workers also are asked to stretch every morning to reduce the risk of muscle strain.
Workers also help each other out and are allowed to finish work early if the temperature is expected to reach 100 degrees. Joymer said the division also holds quarterly meetings and small safety briefings to teach employees how to pick up trash bags the right way.
There’s a lot the public could do, too. Paul suggested people place any sharp items in the center of the garbage so that they’re less likely to stick out and hurt the workers. And it's a good idea to put a warning tag on bags that contain sharp items.
“It’s important for people to follow standards, so we could effectively and expediently collect trash,” Joymer said.
Whether the city will move forward with the roll carts remains up for debate. The City Council will hear a presentation from the Public Works staff on Monday evening about a proposed pilot project that would test whether the system is effective and whether residents might like it.
The roll-cart proposal is also included in the proposed budget for fiscal 2013, which begins Oct. 1. The council is scheduled to have a final public hearing and to vote on the budget during its regular meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. Monday in the City Council chambers at the Daniel Boone City Building, 701 E. Broadway.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.