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NYC Private Sanitation - Unsafe Working Conditions, High Fatalities

Trash and recycling disposal is the fifth-most dangerous job in America by fatality rate, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in New York City, residential sanitation is publicly-run, while commercial garbage disposal is privately-owned -- and the safety records between the two are very different. In 2017, private sanitation trucks killed seven people in New York City, while municipal sanitation trucks haven't caused a fatality since 2014, according to an investigative piece done by ProPublica.

What accounts for this stark discrepancy? The answer appears to be a combination of a lack of regulatory oversight and awful working conditions, a deadly recipe which has led to an astounding 33 fatalities caused by private garbage truck accidents in New York City since 2010

Private Sanitation Disposal: An Unregulated Mess

Under federal law, workers are entitled to a safe workplace -- nobody should have to get hurt or killed to earn a paycheck.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency which sets safety standards for many hazardous private industries. OSHA regulations, however, don't explicitly govern sanitation employees or vehicles. In fact, there is no New York agency to directly oversee sanitation work, leaving regulation instead to a patchwork combination of the NYC Department of Sanitation, the state's Department of Transportation, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, and the city's Business Integrity Commission at various stages of the waste disposal process.

This system has proved ineffective. A detailed report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) found that private waste employers in the city often violate OSHA requirements without suffering consequences for their negligent behavior. The results of this blatant disregard for proper working conditions can lead to tragedy. According to the report, "In virtually every workplace fatality identified by NYCOSH, OSHA found safety violations that contributed to the fatality."

To illustrate the day-to-day impact of these conditions on the lives of workers, NYCOSH conducted a small survey of non-union drivers and helpers (who help to pick up garbage and bring it to be mashed in the truck) working in New York City's private waste industry. They found that:

  • They work 9 to 19.5 hours per work shift (the federal limit is 11 for commercial driving jobs)
  • 93% were not offered health or safety training
  • 84% said they had to buy their own personal protective equipment
  • 83% said their vehicles are often or sometimes in unsafe condition
  • 82% reported they sometimes or often do not get meal breaks

These statistics paint a bleak picture of how working conditions can degenerate due to a lack of proper regulation. And while OSHA will still investigate private sanitation employers if a fatality occurs or a complaint is received, the reality is serious injuries and sometimes even fatalities are not reported and that, oftentimes, the proper regulatory committees are not brought in until it's too late.

Inadequate Regulations and Working Conditions Lead to Tragedy

One recent example of this is the tragic death of Leon Clark, who was killed when he was struck by a commercial garbage truck owned by the Sanitation Salvage Corporation, a Bronx-based company.

Troublingly, Sean Spence, the driver who killed Clark, had actually killed another man, 21-year-old Mouctar Diallo, back in November 2017. Spence initially lied to police, claiming that Diallo was a "crazed homeless man" who attempted to jump onto the truck. It was eventually revealed, however, that Diallo was an employee of Sanitation Salvage and was working on the truck as a "helper" at the time of his death.

Months after Spence's initial accident, Orrett Ewen, another employee at Sanitation Salvage, testified to the city council about unsafe conditions and shifts as long as 18 hours, which he claimed are the norm for drivers in the private sanitation industry.

"My brain was so tired," Ewen told Council members. "If you complain about being overworked, they will give your shifts to someone who won't complain." Hardworking women and men who depend on a paycheck to live should never be forced to confront issues like this. Still, it happens and happens too often -- workers in the sanitation industry are viewed as replaceable and are taken advantage of.

Sadly, no action against Spence or Sanitation Salvage was taken, and Leon Clark was killed six months later.

Stories such as Clark's illustrate the impact that the gritty, unregulated nature of the private sanitation industry has on general public safety. Clark was killed in a motor vehicle accident that was entirely preventable; however, truck crashes are only one of the dangers which make the lack of regulation and safety training in commercial sanitation so dangerous. Hazards of the garbage disposal industry include:

  • Cuts from debris sticking out of garbage bags, such as glass, coat hangers or hypodermic needles
  • Struck by motor vehicle, either from passing motorists or the garbage truck itself
  • Chemical and biological hazards which may be obscured from view by garbage bags or bins
  • Over-exertion causing bodily injury such as disc herniations, joint damage and chronic knee pain
  • Caught-in injuries, such as being crushed in operating equipment and other mashing machinery 
  • Inadequate personal protective equipment, such as goggles, gloves and proper footwear
  • Psychological stressors such as wage theft, overly-long shifts and lack of access to proper sanitation facilities

The very real physical, mental and psychological stresses of working at a private sanitation company which operates with free reign due to a lack of regulation is not just a danger to workers -- pedestrians are at risk as well.

The experienced personal injury attorneys at Block O'Toole & Murphy learned firsthand about the dangers of the commercial garbage disposal industry in a $5,000,000 wrongful death lawsuit which was recently settled.

A mother of four was walking with a friend on a sidewalk in Manhattan when a privately-owned garbage truck passed by. Unfortunately, the operator of the vehicle had a seizure as he was behind the wheel, losing control of his vehicle and tragically striking and killing the two pedestrians.

The four children of the deceased mother brought wrongful death actions and loss of parental guidance claims against the company who hired the driver. It was revealed that the company had violated federal law by failing to obtain the employment record of the driver. Had they done so, they would have learned that the driver had been let go from his previous driving position due to a seizure condition which he was known to have suffered from. The company never took that basic, federally-mandated step, however, and two people, including a mother of four, tragically lost their lives as a result.

Too many private sanitation workers, pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists have been badly injured and even killed due to the negligence of companies unwilling to take the necessary steps to provide adequate working conditions, safety training and protective equipment for its employees. Clearly, it's essential for lawmakers to introduce and strictly enforce new laws and regulations in order to maintain public safety and reign in this out-of-control and dangerous industry.

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