Archive for Sunday, February 7, 2010

Walking in a sanitation worker’s shoes

Journal-World reporter Chad Lawhorn got first-hand experience Tuesday helping city sanitation workers do their routes in Lawrence.

Journal-World reporter Chad Lawhorn got first-hand experience Tuesday helping city sanitation workers do their routes in Lawrence.

February 7, 2010


A day in the life of a sanitation worker

Lawrence Journal-World reporter Chad Lawhorn spent a morning working with city sanitation crews to take out the trash. The city is currently discussing possible changes to the rate and wage system associated with the sanitation service. Enlarge video

Trash or treasure?

Here’s a look at some of the odd things Lawrence trash truck crews have found in the trash:

• Jars of coins. During move out time, crews frequently find that students just throw out money rather than pack it. No, the crews don’t get to keep the money. The city has an anti-looting policy for refuse workers.

• Live possums or raccoons. They are the two most frequent animals found in Dumpsters or trash cans.

• Live people. They run a close second. Trash truck operator Tommy Taylor remembers coming to one Dumpster where a woman — dressed in a new white shirt and black slacks — was inside rooting through the trash. When told she would have to leave, she went to her car and pulled out a stack of Playboy magazines to give to the crew. “I told her we can’t take the Playboys and you can’t be in the Dumpster,” Taylor said.

• Deer carcasses. Around hunting season, there are more Lawrence residents cleaning deer in their garages than you may think.

In the fraternity of Lawrence trash truck crews, it is known as the dog feces story.

Actually, it is not known as the dog feces story, but trash truck language does not always translate word-for-word into family-newspaper language.

Anyway, Lawrence trash truck loader Ross Smith is at a Lawrence veterinary clinic holding a bag of dog feces. Except he doesn’t know it is dog feces until he throws it into the back of the big blue truck and starts putting the juice to that hydraulic blade that squeezes everything in its path.

“He hollered up to me and asked me for a paper towel,” trash truck operator Tommy Taylor remembers. “I turn around and he had it all over. On his face. On his shirt. On his pants.”

“In my pockets,” Ross jumps in. “That’s probably the worst I’ve ever been sprayed with.”


• • •

So, here I am hanging off the back of a Lawrence trash truck heading down 23rd Street — and we’re turning into a vet clinic. Ross, hanging on the other side, gives me a nod. This is the place.

A moment of explanation may be needed. I’m hanging off a Lawrence city trash truck because city officials have agreed to let me perform, for a day, the work of a typical city trash truck loader. (City Manager David Corliss actually seemed all too accommodating to arrange this for the City Hall reporter.) I know not Corliss’ motives, but mine were nothing more than to give readers a peek at the job as city officials talk about changing the city’s trash service — everything from new types of rates to how trash truck crews are paid.

Back at the vet clinic, there are bags. My post in this operation is along the side of the truck. Ross had told me that’s where he was at when it happened, but he said he may have left himself exposed just a little too much.

I, for one, hide beside the truck like there is a sniper on the roof.

The stop is done, and thus far it is: Rookie Trash Truck Loader 1, Fido 0. Later, Ross tells me his canine combustion wasn’t all that bad.

“It is one of those things you get accustomed to in this job,” Ross said. “At first, you’re like ‘that is gross.’ But then, it is like, ‘ah, that happens.’”

With any luck, today it doesn’t.

• • •

There’s a light that shines through the glass door at 11th Street and Haskell Avenue at 5:30 a.m. Like bugs to a zapper, it attracts trash men.

Inside, crews gather around a table and a pegboard of truck keys. They’re waiting until 5:45 when they are allowed to clock in and fire up the diesel engines that are to this East Lawrence intersection what a rooster is to the farm.

In the meantime, they’ve got a new guy to look at. They kid him about his hat — a city-issued stocking cap with a nice little embroidered trash truck on it. Apparently, nobody actually wears that.

They question his coveralls. (They were right. Despite temperatures that never got above the low 30s, I was so hot by 7 a.m. that I ditched them.)

When asked, they offer some advice, but not much.

“Hang on,” one says.

“And,” from another, “don’t get run over.”

• • •

Tommy Taylor has been on the crew for nine years now — seven as a loader and the last two as the lead operator who drives the truck.

He’s been part of these assignments before to show the trash truck ropes to a “dignitary” (the quotation marks are extra heavy when referring to a City Hall reporter). He’s taken the city auditor out, as well as an assistant city manager who wanted to get a better feel for the operations.

He comes to work with a smile — a genuine one, it appears — but also a clear purpose. There’s a lot of trash to pick up. A lot of tanks — trash men don’t often call them Dumpsters — to tip today.

“They told me to be nice to you, so I’m going to take it easy on you for the first half-hour,” Tommy says.

My, my, how time flew.

• • •

A hook, of all things, was my enemy. Lawrence trash trucks are set up to empty the large Dumpsters around town by pushing the tanks up against the back of the truck and then attaching a steel cable to a ring on the back of the Dumpster. A winch does the heavy work.

But still, somebody has to open the hook and attach it to the ring. Sounds easy enough. Evidently, though, having a pair of hands that can manipulate a keyboard does not prepare you to open a simple hook.

Ross tells me he struggled with it his first time too, but I’m not sure I believe him. And then, when you think you finally have it figured out, the trash truck has a way of bringing you back to earth.

We’re in the Meadowbrook Apartments complex, and I snap one on and yell “hooked” to let Ross know to start the winch. What I didn’t know was that the lid to the Dumpster hung down and caused the hook to not fully close. As the tank got about three feet in the air, that became pretty obvious.

“I don’t think that one was hooked all the way,” Ross says matter-of-factly as the Dumpster falls backward and crashes onto the parking lot. Trash spews, a wine bottle — really, a wine bottle at Meadowbrook — shatters. It all gets tossed back in, and Ross gets the broom and dustpan to clean up the kid’s mess.

At least I wasn’t standing behind the trash truck when it happened. I had already been told that a trash truck is like a mule — don’t stand behind it unless you want to get kicked.

And that was before I even knew about the dog feces.

• • •

A half a step out of place is all it takes.

Like many blue-collar jobs, this is one that is about timing and knowing your place. The dog feces makes for a good story — a good way to gag your dinner companion — but it really is not what weighs on your mind as you hang off the back of a trash truck.

Instead, you think about how when Ross moves to spot A, you are going to move to spot B and grab object C so that we keep this process moving and you do your share of the work.

You think about making sure your foot isn’t tangled up with the cable when you jump off the platform of the truck. You think about how when you grab a tank to shove up against the truck that you’re going to grab it far enough back to keep your fingers out of the way. Tommy, earlier in his career, broke three fingers when he forgot to think about that.

But mainly, you think about the cars. You always have to be thinking about the cars. Every time you leap, you have to look because trash truck crews the world over will tell you that many motorists won’t.

“They consider us like a traffic jam, and it irritates them fast,” Tommy said. “Just pay attention to the guys in the green vests and the big blue trucks with the flashing lights. That’s really what we want people to do.”

Those cars, along with a heavy dose of lifting and lots of moving parts, rank trash collecting as the ninth most dangerous profession in the country, said Craig Pruett, the city’s field supervisor for solid waste. According to federal occupational data, there are 46 fatalities per 100,000 refuse collectors. That’s about three times more than for firefighters or police officers.

Many times, there’s little a trash worker can do. In 2001, a Lawrence trash truck loader lost a leg after being struck by a car that ran into the back of the truck.

Other times, it just takes being a half step out of place to hurt yourself. Like when pushing a tank back into place and standing right next to the ear — the nub that latches onto the truck. Standing a half-step behind the Dumpster would have been better, so that when it hit the parking lot pothole the Dumpster would not slam into your ribs with such force to double you over.

But it’s OK. It was the last tank of the day, and it only hurts when I move.

• • •

Sometimes Ross likes to freak people out.

“Every once in a while, I’ll run into somebody and they’ll tell me where they live, and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, you put out two black trash bags every week,” Ross said. “They’ll be like, ‘How did you know that?’ I say because I pick up your trash and I know these things.”

Trash men really do. Several hours into a route, Ross and Tommy could tell you exactly how many tanks are left to dump. Ross often times can accurately predict how many beer cases will be piled up around the corner. They remember individual trash cans — which ones are likely to be heavy, which ones have bags in them, which ones just have the trash laying loose (that’s not cool, by the way).

They say such tricks are not that hard, if you like what you do.

“I enjoy my job, I really do,” Tommy said. “When you enjoy working with the guys you’ve got on the truck, it is great.”

A big part of it is the camaraderie, they say, doing a job that others don’t want to do. Part of it, though, is just looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing that you left a place cleaner than it once was.

On this day — the second day of February — our truck delivered 18,820 pounds of trash to the landfill. We pulled into the shop, fueled up (we burned about 20 gallons of diesel), cleaned up, and were done by about noon.

The crews, if their supervisors believe they’ve done a good job, get to leave when they’re done and get paid for the full eight hours. That’s one of the policies city commissioners are now reviewing.

Deciding whether that is a good policy for the city is above my pay grade. But I can tell you, though, I was ready to go home. Of course, what was waiting for me when I got there?

Yep, a trash can that needed to be put away. Indeed, it was empty.


Frank A Janzen 8 years, 4 months ago

Very good story. We can thank KU Prof. Norman Forer, way back in Lawrence history, for helping get the Lawrence sanitation workers organized into a union, after which their conditions improved a lot. (Chad, could you do an historical piece about this?) Norm Forer has been a genuine force for positive change over his entire lifetime.

Jean1183 8 years, 4 months ago

Good story, Chad. And a BIG "thank you" to the sanitation workers! More of us appreciate what you do than you probably realize.

RoeDapple 8 years, 4 months ago

Excellent, excellent idea Chad! A day in the life.... You could walk in the shoes of workers in all sorts of jobs throughout Lawrence and relate back to us the good and the bad you encounter along the way! Let me help by starting a list of potential jobs you could report on....

  1. Auto sales
  2. Waiter/waitress
  3. Westar lineman
  4. Stripper (wait, we already have that!)
  5. Bartender
  6. Veterinarian
  7. Proctoligist
  8. Greeter at Walmart
  9. School teacher
  10. Toll booth attendant

The list is endless! And job security! We would follow your adventures faithfully, waiting for the day our own profession is featured in your article. Heck, we might even end up working side by side with you.

Kris_H 8 years, 4 months ago

Proctologist? LOL...

How about: 11. School janitor 12. Restaurant line cook 13. IT help desk

classclown 8 years, 4 months ago

One very good thing to comment on...

My trash is picked up the same day of the week even during most holiday weeks. Everywhere else I've lived if there was a holiday during the week, my trash pickup would be moved either forward or backward by a day or two. Not here. Unless the holiday actually falls on trash day, my trash gets picked up on it's regular day.

Of course this being a small town like it is and crews only working half days generally, maybe they put in full days during those weeks to keep up. Whatever the case, good job.

One bad thing to comment on...

I do not put my dumpster in the middle of my driveway for them and would very much appreciate it if they didn't put it there for me to deal with when I get home. May be a small thing to gripe about to some but it is annoying. And that is realy the only thing I have to gripe about.

One general thing to comment on....

I've never just zoomed on around a trash truck when I come up behind one. I never had to. I stop for a few seconds, they see me there, pull over as much as they can and wave me around. Never takes much time out of my life waiting for those guys to let me get past them.

Anyone that is in that much of a hurry and feels the need to just zoom on around them without waiting is probably the same sort that upon seeing a child on his way to school starting to step into the crosswalk will speed up so they don't have to stop wasting a few precious seconds waiting for the kid to cross the road.

Confused2010 8 years, 4 months ago

“I don’t think that one was hooked all the way,” Ross says matter-of-factly as the Dumpster falls backward and crashes onto the parking lot. Trash spews, a wine bottle — really, a wine bottle at Meadowbrook — shatters. It all gets tossed back in, and Ross gets the broom and dustpan to clean up the kid’s mess.

Chad you should of asked Ross was it really the "kids" mess he cleaned up or his own. Seems he didn't hook the dumpster right.

No matter, very interesting story....

Greenbird 8 years, 4 months ago

Thank you for such a fun and interesting article! I second the "thank you" to the sanitation workers, especially those who come down our alley every Tuesday morning! You guys do a great job! I remember when I was a kid (quite a few years ago) my Dad used to put out a 6-pack of beer for the trash men on the last pick-up before Christmas. From the article, it sounds like these days they wouldn't be allowed to keep it. Too bad.

I agree that an insider's view on a lot of local jobs would make for interesting reading. More suggestions:

  1. Animal Control Officer or Humane Society employee
  2. Pet World

I don't know about Kris_H's suggestion 13: IT help desk job. Not much to write about when the "help" they provide is only: "Have you rebooted? Yes? Well, sorry, we must be experiencing system difficulties." Or: "There's no way to recover the unsaved version of that document you lost when Word crashed, sorry."

School janitor would be cool--I wanna know if they still use that sawdust stuff to clean up when someone tosses their cookies.

Amy Heeter 8 years, 4 months ago

This story just makes me feel so bad for our trash collectors. Not.

Jacob Kucza 8 years, 4 months ago

Interesting piece. It's funny how the "Dirty Jobs" phenomenon is so captivating. Like others, I would like to see this done on a regular basis so everyone can see the hard work other professions entail.

ResQd 8 years, 4 months ago

Kudos to the sanitation workers. In my experience, they have done an outstanding job. I've watched them pick up a trash bag from my curb, have it break and clean up the mess for me. One of the city services that I think is doing an awesome job. Keep up the good work!

Sheila Hooper White 8 years, 4 months ago

greenbird - they use something that smells like cherries and looks like cat litter. this coming from the husband. he said he hates the smell and said it smells like someone "tossed their cherries" :) if that makes any sense.

  1. Muncher's Bakery (the lady who decorates the cakes)
  2. Child Care Provider (in-home and a center)
  3. Street Maintenance Worker

I think the list could go on and on. Many interesting jobs around here and probably some not so interesting jobs.

A big thanks to our sanitation workers!!!

lindseydoyle 8 years, 4 months ago

You should compare this city job to one like "Hearing Officer" which pays more than $56 K per year and only requires a bachelor degree. I'll bet some of the sanitation workers have bachelor degrees too.

Amy McVey 8 years, 4 months ago

A great big thank you to our sanitation workers. I have lived in many cities, and the job they do here in Lawrence is by far the best.

galwaygal 8 years, 4 months ago

dancemomx2: the name of the product janitors use to clean up when somebody "tosses her cookies" is called Vomisorb! Sort of a cross between "vomit" & "absorb". When I was a kid, the version used at our school smelled like bananas. Online sales of the stuff nowadays says it comes in lemon or mint fragrance. No matter, everyone knows somebody barfed and just knowing makes me feel nauseous.

All hail the trash man! Every August, when half of Lawrence seems to be in transit, I'm stunned at how much and the nature of what gets tossed in the dumpsters for the trash haulers to remove. Bless 'em!

Richard Heckler 8 years, 4 months ago

6 hours of doing this job is worth 8 hours of pay.

Call the other two justifiable hours hazardous duty pay...

In the extreme cold, extreme heat, pouring down rain,blizzard conditions etc etc the trash gets picked up even at 6AM.

Mariposa 8 years, 4 months ago

Keep paying the workers for the full eight hours. They do work that must be done. We could cut way back on things like park and rec services and no one would be hurt by that. But, don't pick up the trash and that would be a public health hazard. Social class is alive and well in America. People do see themselves and others by the level of the job they have. Some things will never change. Thanks to Chad and the Journal World for this article.

justtired 8 years, 4 months ago

kudos to all of the sanitation workers, they do a job that no one wants to do. it was very nice to see chad take a moment to walk in their shoes and report with a idea of what really goes on. But if the people in the city of lawrence really want to know why this dept. or any other dept. is losing money they dont have to look very far. you cant take money from a dept and prop up other depts then expect them to make a profit. and when mike wildgen was still there , the city had a mill levy that he protected, where is that money now. The list can go on and on with the amount of money that the commission and Corliss have spent on useless projects. exp: Corliss wanted to save the city money so he did not take a city vehicle yet he still takes a per-diem so how did he save anything. so point the fingers where they should be and i agree find ways to make all the departments better. when you have a good thing dont screw with it and make it worse

whiteknight00 8 years, 4 months ago

What about doing a truely "Dirty" job, and work with a wastewater worker??

mr_right_wing 8 years, 4 months ago

I'd suggest you send this article in to the folks at the Discovery channel...maybe they'd consider you for the new host of "Dirty Jobs".

cowboy 8 years, 4 months ago

Hey Chad , Why don't you write a story about how the city audit uncovered a 1.2 million dollar problem in the Solid Waste department , ran off the long term manager , publicized an audit and then did nothing about it.

greenquarter 8 years, 4 months ago

Another huge thank-you to the sanitation workers, doing a job nobody wants to do. A few weeks ago I saw that a bunch of newspapers/magazines (hello? recyclable!!!) had spilled on the wet pavement of Princeton Boulevard and the workers were painstakingly picking them up while cars zoomed dangerously past. And I feel for them when my neighbor puts out about 30 small plastic shopping bags as his garbage rather than putting them in one big bag. Whatever they're paid, it's not enough. (Also, when we lived in Eudora, before they went to the automated trucks, the workers almost always put the lids back on our cans, especially when it was raining--now that's service!)

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