After numerous serious and fatal accidents involving private garbage trucks, the NYPD ran a week-long crackdown on the industry and pulled 132 of 142 inspected commercial sanitation trucks off the road for dangerous infractions such as malfunctioning brakes, low tire pressure and defective steering columns.
The motivation for this period of hyper-focused policing was a recent series of serious accidents caused by private garbage trucks. The NYPD says that these trucks have caused at least 20 deaths since 2016; a study from the Alliance for a Greater New York found that commercial sanitation trucks are responsible for at least 43 deaths in New York since 2010.
How has this problem has gotten so bad? An obvious answer might be that these trucks work late at night through the early morning hours, when traffic violations might draw less attention. The staggering numbers from this week-long crackdown support this — 1,070 summons were issued to private garbage trucks during the NYPD spotlight, compared to 1,826 summons which were given out since January of this year.
Anybody who has been closely following the news in the past few years may have already been aware of the mind-blowingly frequent safety violations in this industry. One of the most upsetting stories which emphasized these ongoing issues was the tragic death of Mouctar Diallo in November 2017. Diallo, a 21-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was tragically killed while working as the “helper” (a worker who rides on the back of garbage trucks and gets off to handle the trash) on a Sanitation Salvage truck.
Deplorably, Diallo’s death was covered up by the people who he worked with that night, who claimed that Diallo was nothing more than a “crazed homeless man” who tried jumping in front of the truck. While the truth behind this lie began to slowly leak out in the following months, the full story was not widely-known until Sean Spence, the driver who killed Diallo, also struck and killed 72-year-old Leon Clark just 6 months later.
This is all to say that the NYPD’s decision to closely police the sanitation trucks which handle New York’s commercial trash by night is long overdue. Yet while we should not look to absolve the drivers of garbage trucks who violate basic traffic laws, such as the driver who drove the wrong way down a one-way street and killed Alberto Leal while he was walking in a crosswalk, it may be said that the unsafe practices of commercial sanitation trucks and employees is only a symptom of a much larger problem.
A May 2016 report from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) titled “Worker Safety and Health in New York City’s Scofflaw Commercial Waste Industry” closely examined the subpar working conditions which are rampant in the industry. The report includes a survey of drivers and helpers which led to some disturbing revelations:
- Work shifts can last anywhere from 9 to 19.5 hours, well beyond the federally-mandated 11-hour limit for commercial driving jobs
- 93% reported that their employer provided no health or safety training
- 84% said that if they wanted to have personal protective equipment, they had to purchase it on their own
- 83% reported that their vehicles are often or sometimes in unsafe condition
These statistics suggest that the safety issues which have tarred the private sanitation industry are deeply ingrained and go well beyond the decision-making of truck drivers and other sanitation employees. While a week of focused policing is a good start, it may not be enough to solve the structural issues which have allowed unsafe industry-wide practices to flourish in the first place.
One solution which has been discussed is to change the system by which commercial sanitation is handled. As it stands, businesses choose their own provider from a pool of over 250 companies. The result is that a single block can be serviced by any number of different companies, significantly increasing the amount of traffic on the road and further extending the work shifts of drivers who are forced to take illogical routes across all five boroughs. Bill de Blasio’s office has suggested that a system which sorts the city into zones and assigns companies to specific zones would help reduce traffic and improve safety, though so far no changes appear to be forthcoming.
But waiting for the slow wheels of the law to turn is not an excuse for private sanitation companies to continue their blatantly unsafe practices, which have taken the lives of too many New Yorkers in recent years. Private sanitation companies need to take responsibility for the defective vehicles they put out on the road, and the lack of health and safety training which they provide to their employees. It is time for private garbage companies to prioritize safety over profit.
“Just because the initiative is over doesn’t mean the enforcement is over,” said NYPD Chief Terence Monahan. “Hopefully we sent a message out to these companies.”
For the sake of the well-being and safety of the people of New York, we can only hope that that message has been received.