Garbage Workers Face Four Times The Peril Than Firefighters

Garbage Workers Face Four Times The Peril Than Firefighters And Two Times More Dangerous Than Police Officers

My heroes rolled into the neighborhood the other day, snatched up a menace to society, and quickly rolled out. They made some noise in the process, but as always, they moved with precision and no one was hurt this time as far as I know. Their operation was conducted without firearms, billy clubs, stun guns, tear gas or handcuffs. There was no violence and no threat of it.

You might think I’m making some kind of comparison to police work and, in a way, I am. Right about here, I probably should say that most law enforcement officers are no doubt brave, upright public servants who do an essential job that is often nasty and sometimes dangerous. I wouldn’t want any part of it myself.

But the heroes I have in mind do an equally necessary job that is always nasty and is far more dangerous than police work. Moreover, they are never accused of shooting or beating up vulnerable people.

My heroes are refuse collectors. That’s right. Garbage men.

Their job is twice as dangerous as police work. The latest report by the U.S. Department of Labor lists garbage men as performing the seventh most deadly job in the country, just below roofers at No. 6.

Cops come in at 14th on the list — a bit safer than cab drivers.

People who fish for a living, by the way, have the deadliest job of all. Loggers are second. Then come airplane pilots, miners, iron workers, roofers, garbage men, farmers/ranchers, truck drivers/traveling salesmen, and rounding out the top 10 are power line workers.

Interestingly, firefighters, whose aura of valor is almost mythic, come in 27th on the list. Garbage men face four times the peril.

The relative placements of these occupations in the latest Labor Department report is not unusual. Year after year, fishermen and loggers are at the top of the most dangerous jobs list, and year after year, the stats show that it’s more dangerous to pick up garbage than perps.

But, of course, we need both cops and garbage men. Few people, despite a growing awareness of police abuses, would want to go without law enforcement. Similarly, no sane person wants rotting, disease-infested garbage piling up in the streets. Just ask the Lebanese.

But of these two essential jobs, which one gets the rewards and the glory? No contest.

Start with salary. Garbage collectors are paid a nationwide median wage of only $32,720, according to the Labor Department. Police salaries are not enviable either, but they are far better at a median of $56,130.

And glory? It may sound ghoulish and insensitive to say so, but part of the police image seems based on the way we picture cops dying on the job as opposed to workers in other occupations. Garbage men die grisly, unromantic deaths. They slip and fall and are run over by their own trucks, or they might get caught by the lever of a trash compactor and crushed to death. They don’t die in shootouts with hoodlums.

But that’s how cops die, right? Well, not necessarily. Last year 49 officers were killed by gunfire in the line of duty nationwide — two of them by accident — according to the Officer Down Memorial Page on the Internet. But 52 others died of far less dramatic causes, including heart attacks, duty-related illnesses and vehicular accidents that did not involve car chases.

Even so, when a cop dies it is cause for a grand ritual of spectacular mourning. The funeral of a garbage man? Not so much. When is the last time you saw a news video of refuse collectors marching down a broad city street behind the coffin of a fallen comrade while bagpipers in full regalia played “Amazing Grace”?

Protocols for police funerals posted on the Internet include instructions for the use of bagpipes, flags and gun salutes. No, you won’t find anything like that for dead garbage men.

And, of course, the news media and the entertainment industry add to the glory gap. Trash collection is not big news — unless there’s a strike — and it’s not the stuff of drama. But if you ever have trouble getting to sleep, try remembering the names of all the cop shows you’ve seen on TV.

OK, I admit it. Who would watch something called, “The Garbage Men”? No, there’s not going to be any glory for my heroes.

But next time they wake you up in the morning with clatter and back-up bells, maybe you could send a little prayer or a good luck wish for their safety.


By John Hurst