Spare a thought for the garbage man

Garbage workers are continuing to think of not just ways to remove our unwanted trash, but also invent ways to reuse what is thrown away. -
Garbage workers are continuing to think of not just ways to remove our unwanted trash, but also invent ways to reuse what is thrown away. -

IF the waste workers decide to take a day off from work, we would worry; if they continue to be absent for a week, we would start to panic.

In Malaysia, they collect five to eight kilogrammes of waste per household per day, which works out to 150kg to 200 kg per month. Imagine each household generating 1.5 tonnes of waste each year.

Once we toss the blue or black plastic bags of garbage out, we simply forget about it – out of sight, out of mind. However, very few of us actually wonder about the waste collection. How many of us think of the important role played by the garbage collectors and their heavy responsibility to collect our waste, clean our environment and make the new day brighter and cleaner for all of us?

If the waste management industry were to cease operations for a day, especially on a public holiday, we would see heaps and heaps of rubbish at our waste chambers, roadsides, corners and walk paths.

Global Garbage Man Day was observed on June 17, 2018. How many of us knew this? I don’t think any person has celebrated the trash collectors, dumpster haulers, sewage workers, street cleaners and just about anyone who does the dirty job that we would not want to do.

A city's highest allocation goes to garbage collection, followed by the police, fire and health departments. We have Police Day, Fireman’s Day, Doctor’s Day and Nurse's Day in honour of the work they do. I would firmly say that it is essential and appropriate for us to honour and respect the waste management workers as well.

Cities overrun by garbage are not so far from us today. Natural disasters and poverty-ridden issues that struck several countries around the world have left the people struggling with the absence of an efficient daily public sanitation service. Streets lined with six-foot-high mounds of trash and rivers filled with contaminated water and airborne diseases are causing several premature deaths.

Today, garbage men and women have developed creative ways to solve the problem of waste disposal. One of the hot topics in the industry is conserving the environment. It is the systematic practices of garbage collection personnel that allow for successful recycling and conservation efforts. Waste sources are gathered and then sorted by material types (plastic, paper, glass, wood, metal, etc.) and then fed into the recycling system.

Garbage workers are continuing to think of not just ways to remove our unwanted trash, but also invent ways to reuse what is thrown away. We are into energy conservation and environmental rehabilitation which facilitates a better and cleaner world for all. Without the garbage men in our communities, many cities would be driven to a state of disorder, chaos or mayhem. Historically, the eradication of many diseases in the world was due to higher public sanitation standards resulting from efficient garbage disposal systems.

How many of us know the risks and hazards faced by waste workers? They are subject to the hot weather, rain and also exposed to all the waste that we nonchalantly throw away. We discard paints, acids, broken glasses, expired medicines, soiled napkins, pet waste, wet food waste, toxic waste and anything and everything that we don’t want.

Many a time the waste workers don’t use gloves, industrial boots or any safety gear as there is total disregard for safety in the waste management industry. Just watch them at work when it rains. It is a sad sight to see them collecting waste without wearing raincoats. The road sweepers are also high-risk waste workers – just one poor judgment on the part of the driver of a vehicle will result in an accident.

The waste workers are exposed to the following dangers which are of concern to all:

1. Harmful chemical and biological substances

Even though some municipalities have implemented multi-bin separation systems and distributed educational materials, workers must contend with consumer ignorance and misconceptions about the recycling process and what is actually recyclable. Exposure risks are associated with many sources that include:

Used hypodermic needles.

Sharp objects, such as broken glass, nails, sharp metal and wood shards.

Industrial and household chemicals, including motor oil, mercury-containing thermometers, solvents and batteries.

Dead and rotting animals, such as squirrels, cats and dogs that climbed into containers looking for food and got stuck.

Biohazards, such as rotting food waste, used diapers, animal faeces and disease-causing pathogens.

2. Moving machinery: compactors, conveyor belts and sorting machinery

Most recycling equipment and compactors require cleaning, servicing, adjustments or some sort of general maintenance to maintain efficient processing and sorting activities. If proper maintenance procedures are not implemented, employees could face amputations or fatal crushing injuries. There are many such accidents in Malaysia.

3. Respiratory hazards: dust and airborne contaminants

Waste and recyclable materials generate a lot of dust that can have serious health consequences. The dust can contain micro-particles of plastics, glass, biohazards, toxic substances such as asbestos or silica, and other respiratory irritants. Even animal faeces, rotting food and other organic waste can become airborne in the form of “bioaerosols”. Masks and proper ventilation can easily reduce the health risks associated with airborne toxins. Have you ever seen a Malaysian waste worker using a face mask?

4. Awkward positions and repetitive motion injuries

Waste and recyclable workers must often twist, reach, jump and stoop to sort out materials on fast-paced conveyor belts with fixed widths and heights. Because sorters often stand bent forward for hours at a time using recurrent motions, they can suffer from repetitive stress injuries of the back, shoulder, knees, hands and fingers. 

All waste management concessionaires and Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp) must ensure the safety of waste workers (both local and foreign) by:

* Conducting workplace hazard assessments. Identify hazards and, if those hazards cannot be eliminated, implement safe work procedures and provide correct personal protective equipment at no cost to workers.

* Providing health and safety training to workers in a language they understand.

* Creating exposure control plans for workers who come in contact with blood or other bodily fluids.

* Substituting quieter processes, parts and equipment to reduce noise exposure.

* Limiting extended work shifts as often as possible.

* Ensuring that personal protective equipment is provided to all waste workers.

* Providing access to toilets, wash facilities, showers and potable drinking water.

Every year on June 17, greet the waste workers you may meet at your office or your home or are working in the streets. Greet them with a smile and also thank them for their contributions. Provide them with water or food if you can do so. Tell them that you care for them, regardless of whether they are local or foreign citizens. If you are driving, please do bring down your windscreen and say "Terima Kasih" or "Thank You" to them or honk at them.

Waste workers are not to be treated as wasted workers. They are our pride. They dirty their hands to keep our hands clean. A waste worker is a person whose seat in heaven is secured as they are continuously cleaning our homes, neighbourhoods, towns, cities and our nation. Let’s celebrate our waste workers and instil a greater sense of dignity and pride in their job. They are not ordinary but dignified waste workers.

It is my sincere hope that the new Pakatan Harapan government would pay more attention to this group of workers who have been long ignored. Let’s start with June 17, 2019, as the starting point to cherish, care and highlight the plight of these forgotten workers. - Bernama

* Ravindran Raman Kutty – an avid writer, community worker, award-winning communications practitioner and social activist with a profound love for the environment – he points out to the need to celebrate waste collectors and the work they do.