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TRASH JOB OFTEN REEKS OF DANGER: WORKERS CAN FACE HIGH MORTALITY RATE

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Daytona Beach News-Journal on April 8, 1999.

DELTONA -- The smell grows and mutates, slowly.

Unlike the stench when you empty rotten food down the disposal, unlike a whiff of bad air from a dump, unlike the odor from your own garbage, the smell from a garbage truck refuses to stay the same, transforming with each bag tossed into the hopper.

Such permutations make it difficult to get used to the aroma; every time the nose adjusts, a crate of month-old oranges or a basketful of leftover Easter eggs attacks the senses anew.

It takes about a month, said trash thrower Bob Peabody, to not mind the smell. Then it's only the really bad loads the ones of which horror stories are made that make a garbageman gag.

Peabody and his driver, Chuck Bixler, still talk, for example, about the can of meat. A customer had cleaned out his freezer, putting a bunch of meat in his garbage can and sealing the lid tight.

The garbagemen didn't get to the sun-baked can until 2:30 p.m.

More recently, they've been plagued by a customer who puts out dog feces in bags that habitually split, scattering the smelly waste. "How hard can it be," Peabody wonders, "to put it in two bags?"

But the problem with trash slinging can be summed up like this: Having to scrape up scattered dog droppings isn't the worst part of the job, which pays $65 to $90 a day.

It's also deadly.

"It's dangerous in almost every way you can imagine in levels of mortality, of injury, of occupational illness," said Dr. James Englehardt, a University of Miami professor who studies the solid waste industry. "We didn't expect it to be this bad."

Nationally, solid waste workers have the seventh highest mortality rate, with 48.8 deaths out of every 100,000 workers. Florida's rate is almost double that, with 90 out of 100,000 workers dying.

That makes the Florida solid waste industry the third deadliest field in the nation.

The sign at the Orange City office of Jennings Environmental Services office proclaims, "We've worked 0 days" without an accident.

The company's most recent serious injury was the maiming of Jose Colon, who was hit by a car while emptying a can into a truck.

The danger posed by other drivers is evident from the tail of a truck. Drivers whiz by, rarely slowing. Workers tell of cars careening onto lawns, passing the truck on the right.

When drivers run into the rear of the large, green vehicle, they usually protest that they didn't see it.

"How do you miss a truck that big?" Peabody asks. I mean, there's the flashing lights and all. How do you miss it?"

Such outside dangers make workers do all they can to deal with the hazards they can control.

"I'm a safety freak," Bixler said, the type who unplugs my electric coffee pot if I'm going be out of the house."

Being so concerned about safety makes for a long day. Bixler and other drivers arrive at the yard around 5 a.m., making sure the trucks are safe and roadworthy. Each morning, company officials said, the workers receive a safety lecture before rolling out.

The rest of the work force shows up by 5:30 a.m.

Many carry large water jugs against the day's heat. Long hair is common; cigarettes are ubiquitous. Most display muscles developed by flinging 15 tons of garbage each day, six days a week.

Many of the men there is only one female thrower are wearing clean green T-shirts with the company name, while others have striped shirts with name tags on the pocket.

The starched image doesn't last long. By mid-morning, Peabody's jeans are filthy and his shirt stained and sweat-soaked. Bixler's clothes are also soiled, and his gait is a little slower as he jogs from the back of the truck to the cab.

"I go through a lot of jeans and a lot of sneakers," Peabody said eight sets of footwear since his Dec. 28 start date.

"But I don't buy them all," he said. "If I find a good pair, I'll toss them in the washer a few times.

"These ones here," he said, pointing to his feet, "were brand new. They didn't even have the laces in them."

Odder things than sneakers can be found along the 500-house route: an old mail box, complete with stake; a miniature sewing machine; a yard jockey with a broken arm. Some 1975 bowling trophies. A speeding ticket.

There's always at least one grill, the workers said; Tuesday's route often yields a couch. Pornographic magazines are common.

"You can tell a lot about a person from their garbage," Bixler said.

One house, for example, contains a bunch of college kids, said Peabody. Their garbage is always full of beer cans.

"How do they drink so much?" he wonders.

Both workers interviewed for this story have a history of manual labor. Thirty-year-old Peabody came to Florida after a weeklong ice storm prompted him to leave Maine, where he worked in a textile mill.

Bixler, 43, has held jobs ranging from managing a convenience store to milking cows. Before joining Jennings, he installed septic tanks.

Despite a familiarity with physical work, it took the men about six weeks to get used to the bending, lifting, running and carrying.

"It takes an athlete to do this job," West Volusia Operations Manager Lenny Marvin said. Those guys go through a lot of strain. They're in good shape."

The workers on residential routes the typical entry-level job are usually 19 to 25 years old, Marvin said. As they get older, the company moves them to less physically demanding jobs, such as running front loaders.

Such a move would, some day, be welcomed by Peabody and Bixler.

"I still wake up with cramps in my legs sometimes," Bixler said. "Garbage ain't as easy as it looks. A lot of people think it's gravy. It's not. It's hard."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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