How to fix New York City's dangerous private sanitation industry

A commercial waste removal truck
A commercial waste removal truck
Arman Dzidzovic
A commercial waste removal truck

How to fix New York City's dangerous private sanitation industry

43 New Yorkers have died in crashes with private sanitation in the last eight years.
March 14, 2018

Last week, New York City’s out-of-control private sanitation industry struck again. A truck from the carting firm D&D, driving through Columbus Circle, jumped the curb, hit several parked cars, drove onto the sidewalk and crashed into a subway entrance and a storefront. Police said the driver fled the scene and one minor injury was reported. Given the industry’s track record, it could have been so much worse.

Since 2010, 43 people have died in crashes involving the private sanitation industry’s fleet of trucks, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. Seven died last year alone, and each has a story. Neftaly Ramirez, a 27-year-old cycling home in Brooklyn, was run over and killed in July. In April, 3-year-old Sophia Aguirre died and three of her family members were injured when they were rear ended by a private hauler.

As a former sanitation driver, and as head of the private sanitation workers’ union, I take seriously my responsibility to keep streets safe. Part of that responsibility includes calling out the powerful actors who undermine safety. The inefficient and exploitative system run by private, for-profit waste haulers endangers everyone on our roads, including sanitation workers.

Every night, 90 different private garbage companies send thousands of 32-ton collection trucks across the five boroughs to collect waste from over 100,000 businesses.

Unlike the Department of Sanitation, which picks up residential waste and has not had a pedestrian or cyclist fatality since 2014, the private trucks drive long distances along crazy-quilt routes because a company’s customers are typically scattered across multiple neighborhoods and boroughs.

Despite this irrational system, hauling companies want to make as much money as possible, and frequently give each two-person team a nightly route with more stops than they can safely complete in one shift. My members are making 200, 400, or more stops per night. Workers at non-union companies can be assigned far more.

The result is sleep-deprived and exhausted drivers, who must often extend their shifts into the morning hours, when commuters and school children are on the streets. In a nightly race against the clock, these drivers also have an incentive to speed, to run red lights and to drive the wrong direction on one-way streets to save a few minutes between stops. When the choice is between losing your job and breaking traffic laws, it's not much of a choice at all.

The good news is that City Hall is in the process of implementing common-sense reforms that will make both private sanitation workers and the public safer.

The bad news is that private carters are fighting reforms tooth-and-nail, hiring publicists and lobbyists by day while continuing to endanger New Yorkers at night.

Many companies pay lip service to safety, only to send workers out on trucks with bald tires, bad breaks or broken lights. In a recent two-year period, 48 percent of commercial garbage trucks in New York City were taken out of service after being deemed unsafe to operate under federal safety regulations, more than double the national average for commercial trucks.

Even the most alert driver can’t stop a truck in time if the brakes don’t work. There are many examples of poorly maintained or outdated equipment causing death or injury for workers.

D&D, the company responsible for last Wednesday’s crash in Columbus Circle, ranks among the worst. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, every time D&D’s trucks were pulled over for inspections in the last two years, they were taken out of service for violations including bald tires, damaged axles and employing a driver to operate a garbage truck without a commercial driver’s license.

City Hall should adopt its new zoned commercial waste collection system as soon as possible. By moving from the current system to one in which a single hauling company exclusively serves each commercial district, garbage truck routes will be shortened 50 to 70 percent, according to the city’s analysis. That means more alert and rested drivers operating trucks moving at slower, and legal, speeds between stops.

Better employment practices and better safety practices go hand in hand. Sanitation workers at the city’s Department of Sanitation have a strong union, good training and modern trucks, but labor standards in the private industry have declined. It is now common practice for private hauling companies to hire casual workers off the street as “helpers,” and pay them cash to help drivers load garbage bags on grueling nighttime routes. Treating a dangerous but essential job as casual labor exploits these workers and makes safe communication practices between helpers and drivers impossible.

Under an exclusive zone system, private sanitation companies will bid for the right to service each zone. The city can evaluate each company’s proposal based on whether it offers a good deal to small businesses, while also accomplishing our safety and environmental goals. A company’s history of safety violations and crashes, as well as their policies for safety training, equipment and technology, should be among the factors that are weighed in awarding these competitive contracts to sanitation companies. Carters that take safety seriously should win out over those who endanger New Yorkers.

Other cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have taken steps to bring sanitation work into the 21st century with exclusive waste zone systems that feature rational routing, safety technology and fair standards and benefits for workers. It is time that New York City does the same, for the public good.

Sean T. Campbell
is president of Teamsters Local 813, which represents workers in New York City’s private sanitation industry.