By Aaliyah Bowden
Three days before Micheal Robinson Jr. found out that his superintendent had died in the hospital from the novel coronavirus, he learned that his cousin-in-law in New York had also died from COVID-19.
Adrian Grubbs, a sanitation worker in Raleigh, was among the first few COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina. News of his death caused Robinson to fear for his own life as he continued working through the pandemic at Raleigh Solid Waste Services.
“I feel like a lot was not put in place until after one of our own died from COVID-19,” said Robinson, a 37-year-old service specialist, who is known as the voice of SWS by his co-workers.
When COVID-19 began to rapidly spread through the country, Robinson said the virus was “minimized” at SWS departmental meetings and that they were told that the flu was more deadly than the coronavirus.
“We were told not to panic,” Robinson said. “We were told that more people have died from the flu.”
After Grubbs died, the COVID-19 leaders at SWS began checking workers’ temperatures and enforcing social distancing measures.
The North Carolina Public Service Workers Union wrote several letters to Raleigh city council following Grubbs’ death.
In the letters, they requested more PPE for city workers, COVID-19 testing, increased hazard pay and an investigation into where Grubbs contracted the virus along with other recommendations to keep solid waste workers safe.
A city official finally responded and said that there would be staggered shifts implemented to keep city workers safe.
About 180 workers at SWS are just some of the essential workers who kept their schedules, even as many North Carolinians sheltered at home in March, April and May. Without such workers, some of the services that keep our communities going — street cleaning, garbage pickup, food delivery, grocery stores — would falter.
According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, sanitation workers have the fifth most dangerous job in the country, behind loggers, fishermen and roofers.
When solid waste workers collect trash from people’s homes, they can be exposed to viral pathogens such as hepatitis B and e. Coli and are at risk of acute conditions such as cuts, chemical exposures, lifting injuries, and injuries from motor vehicle accidents, according to David Biderman, the executive director at Solid Waste Association of North America.
“Because people are putting materials containing potential health hazards in the trash whether it’s batteries or pool chemicals,” Biderman said. “It could be somebody who’s sick in the house and there’s material in the trash can that has hepatitis B on it.”
Workers riding on the rear run the risk of irritation to their eyes from the chemicals they are exposed to daily.
Biderman said that workers who collect trash from residences are not likely to catch COVID-19 from the materials collected. Instead, sanitation workers are most likely testing positive because they are moving around within their communities every day.
For Robinson that means waking up at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday to arrive at work at 6:45 a.m. He prepares a big breakfast to last him through lunch.
Because he’s out on the street working sometimes in the dark, he wears a high visibility shirt, dark blue cargo pants, steel safety boots, safety glasses and gloves. Before starting work, he walks through a maze-like tent outside of SWS headquarters to have his temperature checked from people dressed in hazmat gear, mask and gloves.
From there, he is issued a mask and hand sanitizer and is given his route for the day.
On Robinson’s route, he picks up yard waste that has “distinctive” odors which vary from chemicals to onions and flowers.
Though a simple task, collecting yard waste can be more difficult than it appears. Robinson and his two other crew members are constantly breaking into a sweat lifting heavy bags, containers and cans filled with water from residents’ front yards. The dirt they handle could make them more susceptible to skin infections if they get a cut or scrape.
Yard waste services were suspended by SWS for about two months, causing tons of yard waste to accumulate. Some residents were unhappy and complained about the stinky yard waste piling up in their yards. So, when Robinson and his crew were again permitted to pick up yard waste they had their work cut out for them.
The backlog was so large that Robinson and other workers could only work half of their routes each day when they resumed May 19.
Then on June 4, Robinson and two other crew members on the truck were informed that social distancing measures must be taken while on the truck, not an easy mandate. Now, one service specialist drives and parks the cab, while two other workers hang off of the rear of the vehicle, with masks and gloves on the whole time.
As of mid-June, SWS began a “modified three-team truck person with a tag along vehicle to eliminate having three people in a cab vehicle,” according to an email statement from SWS.
Some solid waste workers voiced concerns about their workplace being short staff and having several vacant job positions as the pandemic continues.
Lack of vital staff
Raleigh Solid Waste Services currently does not have a safety coordinator. The position has been vacant since June 2019, an organization spokesman said in an email.
That has some of these frontline workers concerned, especially now. They routinely handle dangerous chemicals, yard waste and disinfecting materials. Several expressed concern about having to trust superintendents when it comes to safety rather than having a safety coordinator who’s watching out for them, especially during a pandemic.
On top of that, the department is short staffed and workers have to endure increasing hot temperatures outside, which worries Robinson.
“We have to use our own judgment and being that we don’t have a safety coordinator, we really have to use our own discretion as far as what we will collect and what we will not collect,” Robinson said. “If I injure myself by lifting something that exceeds the weight limit, then I’m at fault.”
Robinson and other sanitation workers say they need more personal protective equipment (PPE) to safely continue doing their jobs. They also want increased pay so they don’t have to work second jobs.
They’re not alone in flexing the newfound recognition of their vital role in society. In Tuskegee, AL sanitation workers have gone on strike. Workers at other sanitation services in North Carolina have protested about their safety and pushed for better pay, especially as they’ve held things together during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even as he works full time at SWS, Robinson also picks up two seven-hour shifts a week, as a home health care worker to supplement his income and provide for his three school-aged children. There he helps with daily tasks such as bathing, cleaning and meal preparation for patients ages 18 to 96. Robinson also has a side hustle as a mobile mechanic traveling to provide car repair services.
Sanitation workers need PPE, too
Personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, is something that’s had a lot of attention during the pandemic, and it’s also an issue for sanitation workers.
Anya Dawson, 33, a senior equipment operator for the City of Goldsboro wears gloves on the job but hardly wears a mask because it fogs up his glasses.
Before the pandemic, Dawson and other workers at his job were given cloth-like gloves that tore easily, which sometimes allowed garbage juices and bloodborne pathogens onto their hands if they weren’t careful. The truck he drives is cleaned out regularly, but Dawson is worried about the hazardous chemicals they may be handling.
There was a shortage of gloves on Dawson’s job at the beginning of the pandemic, and workers were told to write down how many pairs they had already used.
“We’ve had gloves but they are not as available as people will think,” said Dawson.” We have ran out of gloves, but I spoke to the city council since then and they have become more, and more readily available.”
Some sanitation workers wear masks at their jobs while others choose not to, according to Robinson and another sanitation worker interviewed by NC Health News.
According to the CDC, there are no special COVID-19 recommendations to protect sanitation and wastewater workers, but they are encouraged to wear certain PPE given to them at work, as they do heavy work, which might cause them to breathe heavily, in close proximity to others.
Some sanitation workers that may collect trash from a nursing home or hospital have a low chance of catching COVID-19 depending on if they are working directly with waste from sick patients.
“If the workers aren’t going to be working along in close proximity to other people or customers, then there’s really not a reason for a face mask unless they prefer to wear it,” said Kevin Beauregard, N.C. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Director.
The state Department of Labor has received approximately 1,300 COVID-19 complaints, the majority of them from employees and others who have not received the proper PPE for their job, according to Beauregard.
Ninety percent of these complaints have been processed, he said, and most of them are undergoing investigations.
“We really need to be doing a better job in the country to recycle properly,” said Biderman. “We’re asking the general public to be mindful of the things that they do that affect our workers.”