On the job with Oakland’s garbage collectors, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country
on October 12, 2012
It’s barely after 3:30 in the morning at “the yard,” as it’s known at Waste Management of Alameda County, and the engines have started, hundreds of them—roll-off trucks, front, rear and side loaders—collectively unleashing a colossal, ear-splitting whoosh of exhaust and horsepower. The yard, a fenced-in asphalt lot located on 98th Avenue in East Oakland, is where each of the county’s refuse and recyclable collectors begin their route at daybreak, and end it in the late afternoon or early evening. Before sunrise, there is a flurry of green florescent vests as the drivers make their daily preparations. Mechanical forks and arms are tested, routes are assigned, muscles are stretched. Cigarettes and coffee are plentiful.
It takes less than 30 minutes for the drivers to file out in their trucks, which pull away from the yard like industrial-sized ants, their vehicles’ dim red taillights and yellow high beams casting a hazy aura into a pitch-black city.
But every morning that the drivers motor out of the yard, they’re embarking on a job fraught with potential dangers that extend far beyond simply navigating a truck throughout rush hour traffic. In 2011, there were 34 fatal work injuries within the profession, a study released several weeks ago by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. After fishing and logging workers, aircraft pilots and flight engineers, the bureau ranks refuse and recyclable collection workers as having the fourth highest fatal work injury rate in the entire country.
“There are a lot of things that could happen in the blink of an eye,” said Felix Martinez, a business agent for Teamsters Local 70, the Oakland-based union representing Waste Management of Alameda County’s (WMAC) drivers and recyclers. The job is inherently hazardous, Martinez said, even if safety protocols are strictly followed and enforced. “It’s kind of like your shop teacher telling you about all the unsafe aspects, but at the same time he’s missing two fingers.”
What makes this job so dangerous? Physical strain, for one. A driver may dump well over eight tons of garbage in a single day. Drivers also risk being assigned to routes that run through neighborhoods where prostitution, drug deals and gang activity are rampant. There’s also the possibility of sustaining traffic injuries en route, or of being exposed to contaminants in the trash itself.
Less than an hour into his route on a regular Tuesday morning, driver Brian Ghilarducci, 29, has emptied more than a hundred bins lining just one block of 64th Avenue off of International Boulevard. It’s not his first stop of the day; he clocked in this morning at 5:01. Ghilarducci—whose godfather was a collector and his father, a Teamster for 29 years—has been working for WMAC for roughly a year. One reason he prefers the job, he said, is because it allows him to stay athletic; he played pro baseball for three years in Italy. He climbs effortlessly in and out of the cab, despite his tall, lean frame, which is over 6 feet tall. His hair is combed back and under his vest he wears a pale green dress shirt that, despite the nature of his job, has remained spotlessly clean.
It’s laborious work on a narrow street just barely wide enough for one regular-sized car, but Ghilarducci works with speed and fluidity. In one motion, he hops out of the service door closest to the curb—One Pass trucks, the kind he operates, have steering wheels and controls on both sides of the vehicle, so that the driver can stand on what is normally the passenger side and operate the truck while collecting bins. Ghilarducci grabs the cans, latches them to a bin that dumps them into two receptacles attached to an arm on the front of the truck, hops back into the cab, and directs the arms up and over the vehicle to dump the refuse into a much larger container in the back. He’ll do this hundreds, if not thousands, of times over before the day is done.
On hotter days, a trail of ants might make their way from the container in back of the truck into his cab. Or the cockroaches might scatter as they’re disturbed from their bins. Today, as sunlight starts to bathe the street in warmth, there’s this stench—overripe, acrid, almost slightly sweet. “You’re going to get used to that smell pretty quick,” said Ghilarducci. “That’s the maggots.”
Some collectors have been on the job for upwards of 40 years, and the wear and tear over decades of labor is considerable. Ghilarducci works so hard he runs a pair of work boots to the ground every two to three months. Sprains, strains, shoulder, neck, back and knee problems from repeatedly slinging cans over drivers’ shoulders—which, at times, can weigh upwards of 150 pounds— are frequent injuries. “Most of the techniques are muscle memory,” said Ammie Brandon, WMAC’s only female route manager. “You can almost break an arm just grabbing a cart.”
Other drivers, whose routes encompass some of Oakland’s most dangerous neighborhoods, are constantly alert while traveling through them, even in the early morning. Ghilarducci’s current stop on 64th Avenue, for example, is just blocks away the scene of a fatal double shooting that took place last week at roughly 6 a.m. on the 1600 block of 72nd Avenue. Many drivers are wary that they have to return to the same block each morning—sometimes for years if their routes remain the same—regardless of what might have happened there the day or week before. There’s always a chance that residents could become hostile, or identify them as witnesses if their truck happened to be passing through shortly after a crime.
Martinez recalls two instances in which drivers had to be removed from their routes after witnessing criminal activity, including one instance in East Oakland. He said he cannot divulge specifically what the drivers saw, but it was enough that both feared for their safety. “We didn’t want them to be a target,” he said.
Greg Leal, 41, tries to drive through his route as seamlessly as possible without being noticed. “We’re not there for very long; we’re in and we’re out,” Leal said. “In certain areas they know who are you are.” And if a driver happens to stumble upon something questionable or onto a recent crime scene? “You just keep on going,” he said. “If you’re out there in the future being nosy, you’re going to get in trouble.”
Even in the pre-dawn hours, the streets are far from quiet. In parts of West Oakland, passersby sometimes venture under the truck of driver Tracy McKeown, 42, in search of food that may fall out of bins as they are dumped. “Once, I thought one guy was pulling out a gun, but he was pulling out one of those foil power bars. I started rolling the truck; I was going to squash him,” McKeown said. “And you can’t forget about the ladies; sometimes they’ll try to jump in your truck and they’ll want you to pay them.”
Recently though, McKeown has had other concerns while en route. “There’s been lots of dogs loose lately,” he said. “I was recently delayed 20 to 30 minutes by a pack of pit bulls running around. I didn’t want to get mauled.”
To outsiders, the risks of refuse collection are probably fascinating, said senior route manager Andre Christian, a 24-year veteran of WMAC. “Oakland was [once] one of the fifth deadliest cities. That speaks for itself,” Christian said. But the longer a driver is employed, the less unusual it is to hear of hazardous or peculiar run-ins outside of the yard. “Unlike a lot of guys here, I’ve known a driver who’s been shot and killed, and one of our drivers was run over and killed,” Christian said, referring to Jose Camarena, a residential rear-end loader who was killed in 2008 when a car struck and pinned him to his truck in the 9300 block of Bancroft in East Oakland.
Maneuvering trucks on the freeways, around treacherously steep curves up in the hills, or in the thick of commuter traffic is another hazard. In 2011 there were 24 transportation incidents in the waste collection industry that resulted in fatal occupational injuries, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. A roll-off truck—a vehicle upon which a single dumpster bin is fitted to roll on and off the truck bed—can weigh 30,000 pounds, not including the several tons of debris it’s capable of hauling. Because of the vehicle’s slow braking time, some drivers worry about being cut off on the road, or of other drivers lurking in their blind spots.
“I’ve almost taken out quite a few cars on the freeway from being cut off,” said Aldo Delillo, 49, who operates a roll-off truck. Added to that concern is the probability of the weight of the load in tow shifting to one side of the bin while in motion. If it’s considerable enough, the truck could flip over completely.
Drivers are also vulnerable to inhaling hazardous materials as they collect the trash, or of being stuck by improperly discarded needles. Some drivers wear dust masks, but unless they come with ventilators, masks may not offer full protection, Martinez said. “You dump a can and dust comes out; how do you know whether someone was doing construction with asbestos?” he said. “You can keep your fingers crossed that the worst thing you just inhaled was from a cat litter box, although that doesn’t sound very pleasurable, either.”
Each time Ghilarducci dumps the cans into the bins in front of his truck, he’s quick to dodge away from the dust, mystery liquids and occasional bags and boxes that erupt from them as they’re emptied. He’s never quite sure what he might be dumping, or what might splash back toward him. He’s heard stories about Hayward residents without plumbing who dispose of their human waste in their garbage cans. “You don’t want garbage juice splashing up in your face,” he said. “You don’t know what the hell it is.”
Over the past several decades, once-customary collection procedures—like zigzagging on foot across both sides of the street during collection, a risk for both the workers as well as pedestrians and other drivers—have been prohibited as part of WMAC’s efforts to ameliorate hazards on the job. In the yard on 98th Street, a sign hangs on the outside of the warehouse listing a set of 10 “life critical rules” for each driver to abide by. Among the guidelines on the creed: “Never back a vehicle with someone on the riding steps,” (the steps on the side of the vehicle that drivers can stand on if moving forward slowly for short distances) and “Never exceed the speed limits posted or set by policy for school zones, riding steps, and stand-up right-side driving.”
Safety protocols and routine training sessions are paramount to maintain driver safety. “For the amount of risk we have at this job, our drivers are improving their awareness,” said route manager Ammie Brandon. “They understand what it takes to leave the yard and come back to the yard with no issues.”
But for drivers who love the job, the danger and the hard work aren’t discouraging. For Ghilarducci, the way to do the job safely is to be quick and precise on his feet, not to be fast as he drives the truck. Today, he wants to finish up by 4:45 p.m., so he can pick up his 6-year-old daughter. It’s important to him that he doesn’t miss watching her or his son, age 4, grow up, or that he isn’t absent from the baseball league he coaches on the side.
So the clock is ticking and it’s time to keep moving. “I love the job,” he said, wiping his brow on his shoulder after taking a swig of Gatorade. “It’s physical, it’s outside, it’s the driving. It’s everything I want.”
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