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Sanitation Worker

The Real Poop

How long can you live without chocolate? A really long time. How long can you live without your cellphone? Probably way longer than you think. But imagine it’s a hot day with very little breeze. The air is so thick you feel like you’re swimming. Now, we gotta ask: how long can you live without your sanitation worker? 

Because, oh boy, if your city’s sanitation workers disappeared tomorrow, you’d really miss them. Sanitation workers are the guys in the garbage truck who each day collect all the stinky, disgusting gross trash that you create. If they stopped working, it wouldn’t be long before you’re wading through waist-high piles of trash. You know the choking, gagging feeling you get when you walk by a dumpster that hasn’t been emptied in a while? That would just become the smell of all the air everywhere in the city.

So sanitation workers—also known as “trash men,” “garbage men,” and if you’re feeling really formal, “refuse collectors”—are pretty important. Unfortunately, the most important, needed jobs are rarely the most glamorous. And the life of a sanitation worker certainly isn’t.

Let’s be clear about this: you’re dealing with trash. Think about all the disgusting, horrendous things you’ve thrown out in your lifetime. The spoiled, curdled-solid milk you accidentally left in the fridge while you were on vacation for a month. The disgusting hot dog meat you forgot was sitting out on the kitchen counter and that’s molding so fast you swear it’s furrier than an actual dog. The paper towels you used to sop up all the blood that time you scraped yourself skateboarding.

We could go on, but you get the point. You’re disgusting. And in your wake, you leave a lot of disgusting things that need to be taken care of. That’s where the sanitation worker comes in. As a sanitation worker, you take care of the entire city’s disgusting refuse for 12 to 16 hours every day, five days a week. And even in your remaining time off, you can scrub and scrub and scrub, but you won’t be able to scrub the smell out of your skin.

The job is physically demanding. One study found that trash men cover on average more than 20 miles per day. People have a lot of trash, and you’ll have to lift it. Some cities have those newfangled, automated garbage trucks that pick up garbage containers and drop them directly into the truck. Sanitation workers in cities without these fancy doodads will need to lift trash bags manually—while trying to maneuver the smelly, dripping bags as far away from their nose as possible. On the bright side, it will be a great, total body workout. With really stinky, sometimes slimy, dumbbells.

The job is also incredibly dangerous. Not only do many sanitation workers handle hazardous materials, but they’re also in the middle of busy streets from dawn 'til dusk. Impatient drivers trying to squeeze their way around the truck occasionally take down a sanitation worker. Fatality rate is 30 out of 100,000 workers, making it one of the top ten most dangerous jobs in the United States. Are you willing to put your life on the line to take care of people’s trash? 

So what kind of person becomes a garbage man, and why? The pay isn’t that great. Certainly not great when you think of the risk and overall Ick Factor involved in this job. True, since you work for the government, the benefits are nice. You get some pretty comprehensive health insurance, including dental, life insurance, eye care, and physiotherapy if you need it. (Which, hopefully, you don’t because your job is a pretty active one.) You get some sick days, and you get paid overtime. So while your salary may only be 35k, and it’ll be a stretch to pay the bills on whatever piece-of-trash car you drive in your down time, you might find that becoming a garbage man has a lot of advantages over being a streetwalker bartender at a sketchy, local bar.

There are other more hidden benefits, too. Unlike the corner liquor store or the bar down the street, your career isn’t going anywhere. People are trashy, and will always be trashy. You’ve also got a union that will push hard on your behalf to protect your health and your safety on the job. So it’s not glamorous, but it lets you enjoy the rest of your life with a few fewer worries.

So you’re probably someone who values stability. Maybe you’ve got kids to feed at home and a small mortgage to pay off. You’re also someone who’s pretty reliable. Sanitation workers need to follow a very precise schedule that the sanitation company sets. The truck needs to be at the corner of Avenue A and Avenue B on Monday night, or else all the people on Avenues A and B get angry. And angry customers make complaints. And complaints get you fired. Ultimately, cities are looking for stable, dependable, sturdy guys who want to make a buck or two in an honest way. For your sake, too, it wouldn’t hurt if you had some sort of taste and smell disorder. At the very least, let’s hope you have a high tolerance for disgusting smells.

Still interested? Here’s what you need to do. Although garbage trucks are provided by independent sanitation companies, sanitation workers are hired by municipal (city) governments. So basically, all you can do is sit around and wait until your city needs some new trash guys. Theoretically, you could bounce around the country, checking with a bazillion different municipal governments, but honestly who has the time, effort, or resources. If a spot opens up, then and only then will you be able to go through a normal government hiring process, which will most likely require a high school degree of some sort. That’s kinda it, though. The city’s looking for people with the right character, not necessarily a long CV of all the stuff related to trash that you’ve done throughout your life. You’ll learn what you need to know on the job, scary as that might be.

As a sanitation worker, you’ll be working in one of the most important but most neglected jobs possible. Though you deserve thanks from a lot of people, it’s a generally thankless job. And definitely an unsanitary one.