• Image
    In 2010, 355,000 of the nation's 478,000 solid waste workers were employed by the private sector. Waste Management and Remediation (NAICS 562) consists of three subgroups: collection; treatment and disposal; and other waste remediation services. Collections is, by far, the most dangerous. (In the above chart, DAFW means days away from work.) Source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Most of us focus on the negative impact of garbage on the community as a whole:

  • Landfills are the second- or (depending on the source) third-largest producer of methane, a greenhouse gas far more damaging than carbon dioxide; and we're not doing nearly enough to use landfill gas as an energy resource.
  • Unlike water and wastewater, federal pollution control programs are voluntary; unless — like this month's cover subjects — we live in a state that requires us to, we don't have to reduce, reuse, or recycle. We've made huge strides in recycling since the 1960s, but are now stuck at a plateau.

Few of us focus on the negative impact of garbage on the men and women who make it all just go away. And we should: Solid waste collections is by far the most dangerous job in public works.

An average of 85 people die every year while removing our refuse, and the deaths are horrific. Crushing. Falls from trucks. Decapitation. Asphyxiation. Runovers by trucks and compactors. Solid waste being the most privatized infrastructure service, most are private-sector employees. In fact, according to the National Institute for National Safety and Health, the number of public-sector fatalities remained “relatively unchanged” between 2003 and 2009.

Relatively unchanged doesn't mean zero deaths. I know of at least one public-sector employee who'll be another faceless statistic in federal safety rolls: On April 4, 40-year-old Jason Bruscato was crushed between a utility pole and his refuse truck in a narrow alley. He died 20 minutes after reaching the hospital. He and his partner had worked together for years. They took turns driving one week, off the truck and grabbing cans the next. (Imagine how Bruscato's partner, the truck's driver, feels.)

I didn't know Bruscato, but I work with people who did. Like PUBLIC WORKS readers in general, his actions belied the standard-issue image of government workers. He was a full-time public works employee and part-time fireman, library president, and vice president of the Lyons Club. Notes left on the funeral home's website say things like “'no' was not in his vocabulary” and “the entire village has lost a pillar of strength, courage, caring, and love.” Instead of flowers, mourners were asked to send donations to the local animal shelter.

This is the type of person I've come to know as “government worker.”

Stephanie Johnston
Editor in Chief