The vocation of garbage collectors

I have always admired garbage collectors.  Their work is hard and dirty, but essential, and yet they do not get the respect they so richly deserve.  They too are masks of God and without them, as Luther said in another context, we would perish in our filth. Now there is a book about them by anthropologist Robin Nagle: Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City.  These city workers have twice the fatality rate of police officers and seven times that of firemen.  From a review of the book, with an interview of the author, by Heather Horn in the Atlantic:

Have you ever wondered about the secret life of your trash after you toss it into the dumpster, or after it has disappeared from your curb? How about the lives of the people who pick it up? How about what would happen if suddenly all trash collection stopped?

The idea of a semi-invisible world undergirding the modern city has long captured the human imagination. Look to the many books, TV shows, and movies about street urchins, sewer-dwellers, and the criminal underground, or the many plot devices centering on the hidden wealth of information in the homeless community.

But what about the legitimate, government-funded shadow cities that allow the cities we know to exist? What about sanitation work–its armies, its garbage fields, and its machines in the war against ever-accumulating trash shoved out of sight, even stigmatized, while the work of the fire department or police department is glorified? Children may clamor in the morning for a glimpse of the garbage man and his colossal truck, but their parents would prefer they not become sanitation workers. And you won’t find adults tuning in to dramatizations about garbage men on HBO that night.

Sanitation workers, it turns out, have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters.

Maybe HBO should risk a pilot, though. In Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, New York University anthropologist Robin Nagle lets the uninitiated in on the vital, hidden, and arcane system that enables cities to function–from the logistics to the slang and jokes to the places most of us never see. To study the mini-society known as New York’s Department of Sanitation, not only did she follow the men in the garbage truck around through their day–something that took years of trust-winning on its own–she also trained and sat for exams to become a sanitation worker herself

Sanitation workers, it turns out, have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. And their work has similarly life-or-death consequences in the long term, as Nagle shows by taking a look back at New York City’s history. “A study done in 1851,” Nagle writes, “concluded that fully a third of the city’s deaths that year could have been prevented if basic sanitary measures had been in place.”

The reader comes away with a greater appreciation for trash, the necessary byproduct of our consumer society we spend a great deal of money not to think about. But perhaps more importantly, the reader comes away with a greater admiration and appreciation of the men and women that make their way through Nagle’s pages: the beloved younger garbage man who dies on the job, the prankster who destroys one of the hated public trash bins, the suspicious lunchroom clan, the teacher of new trainees who acquires cult-like status.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • fjsteve

    I was in Toronto during one of its “garbage strikes” in 2002. It was not a pretty sight–or smell. During summer, no less. I wonder about the death rate, though. Cops are fire fighters aren’t even in the top 10 most dangerous jobs. Is this because they have much more stringent safety precautions? Is it because they have better benefits that allow them to retire at an earlier age? Obviously, the longer people stay in an occupation the greater the mortality rate for that occupation. Also, whereas cops and firefighters tend to promote to less strenuous jobs, I’m not sure that sanitation workers have the same level of upward mobility.

    In any case, it’s true that just the nature of the job lends itself to a lack of respect. Even their reality show got dumped.

  • Dan

    Thanks for sharing this. We would all be in a real mess if these folks weren’t doing this.
    By the way, I’m reading your book Spirituality of the Cross and am in the chapter on vocation so this fits right in with that.

  • SKPeterson

    I think the death rates come from being hit by moving vehicles, being run over by their own trucks, having tons of garbage dropped on them at landfills, or being crushed in the compactors. Most cops just face the hazard of obesity and heart disease and their death rate aren’t very high. This would imply that sanitation workers also face relatively low mortality rates, even if it is “twice” the rate of police. For example, in 2009, there were almost 1.02 million police in the US and 122 fatalities (all causes), or a rate of 1.2 x 10-4. Is 1.2 x 10-2 really that far from zero?

  • SKPeterson

    Or rather 2.4 x 10-4, I should say.

  • dghorn

    My favorite episode of the Monk TV show is when there was a sanitation worker strike in San Fransisco. The obsessive compulsive neat freak detective, Adrian Monk, gives a speech in the workers union meeting where he praises the noble vocation of sanitation work in an effort to get them back to work. It always reminds me of you, Gene.

  • Joe

    I love those kinds of stats, “twice the fatality rate of police officers.” It is completely meaningless yet it plays on some notion in our minds that this must be a horrible thing.

  • Julian

    A year and some-odd months ago I was visiting New Zealand with my wife. Now, Wellington is a very windy, hilly city built on a fault line. As we put our rental car through its paces on the way up Mount Victoria (driving on the left!), we passed a trash truck. Those garbage collectors looked like professional sprinters, with all of that hill climbing. Instantly I had a newfound respect for their vocation.

  • Mary Jack

    I think citing a statistic about death humanizes the topic further. I didn’t read it as some sort of manipulative ploy. In a sense people live and die in their work, and they, and that work, should be appreciated more.

  • Mary Jack

    I think citing a statistic about death humanizes the topic further. I didn’t read it as some sort of manipulative ploy, as though its use were “completely meaningless.” In a sense people live and die in their work, and they, and that work, should be appreciated more.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    “These city workers have twice the fatality rate of police officers and seven times that of firemen”

    Wow, I had no idea! This sounds like a very interesting book, thanks.

  • fjsteve

    I’ll tell you what’s meaningless, sitting in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.

  • Kathy

    There’s a lot to be said for the satisfaction of physical labor and for going home with a sense of fulfillment in a hard day’s work…and no sense of worry about problems at work, and no bringing work home.

  • sg

    Bravo, Dr. Veith.

    Okay, our city has recently adopted a new kind of trash can/truck system that allows the driver to pick up residential cans like a commercial dumpster, so the driver uses a joystick to hook, hoist and dump, without leaving the driver’s seat. A city representative explained that this system has greatly reduced injuries and allows workers to stay employed with the waste management companies rather than leave because they fear or have sustained an injury. It love it. Tech is awesome.

  • helen

    Possibly what they were trying to say was that, when a policeman or fireman dies “in the line of duty” the local dignitaries are likely to turn out, neighboring departments send delegations to the funeral and it all makes the evening news.
    How often does that happen for a “sanitation worker”?


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