Hidden Dangers Are a Daily Part of Job for Trash Collectors

Times Staff Writer

Terry Hennesey pulled his city trash truck behind a dentist’s office in La Jolla and began dumping garbage cans into the hopper. Hidden in the middle of one can were several clear plastic bags of human blood that burst and splattered his face when he compacted the trash.

A few weeks later, Hennesey, 40, was working a route in Rancho Penasquitos when he got another scare. While dumping a trash can from a home in a well-to-do neighborhood, Hennesey found a World War II hand grenade with the pin still in it and about 2 dozen 9-millimeter, hollow-point bullets.

In 1988, Hennesey received a bigger scare that gave him a “severe anxiety attack.” While entering the Miramar Landfill, Hennesey’s trash truck tripped a sensitive monitor that detects radioactivity. A methodical search of the truck by men in white suits from the County’s Hazardous Materials office revealed that Hennesey had picked up a load of low-level radioactive waste from a private residence in Rancho Bernardo.


The 1988 incident earned Hennesey the nom de garbage “Nuke Man” from other garbage collectors, who, like baseball players, are quick to apply colorful nicknames to their colleagues.

“My situation is no different from the other men and women who pick up trash for the city. . . . In between those incidents, I also picked up paints, acids, batteries and other toxic substances that people hide in the trash. These things are dangerous, but the blood and radioactive waste really frightened me. You worry about AIDS and also wonder how people can be stupid enough to throw radioactive stuff in with household garbage,” said Hennesey, a four-year city employee.

Patrick Garcia, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 127--the union that represents city sanitation workers--complained that “the public takes trash men for granted.”

“People also don’t realize just how dangerous our job is,” said Garcia, himself a garbage collector.

Indeed, according to national, state and local statistics, garbage collection can be more dangerous than police work. In a recent national study done at San Jose State University of the 35 most dangerous blue-collar jobs, garbage collectors ranked sixth, behind firefighters, and police work was ranked 24th, just above bakers.

The San Jose State study looked at the risk of death in 347 occupations and found that garbage collectors suffered 40 deaths per 100,000 population; police officers died at the rate of 17.5 per 100,000. The figures covered job-related deaths in the private and public sectors.


Cal-OSHA spokesman Richard Stephens said state figures for 1987 show that garbage collectors suffered job-related injuries or illnesses at the rate of 29.7 incidents per 100 full-time workers in the private sector. In the public sector, the rate was 21.2 incidents per 100 full-time workers.

Injury Rate: 9.2 Per 100

The injury and illness rate in 1987 for all industries, covering both public and private sectors in California, was 9.2 incidents per 100 full-time workers, Stephens said.

In 1988 San Diego’s 220 garbage collectors filed 153 claims, said Pat Brogan, worker’s compensation administrator for the city. City officials said some workers filed more than one claim, but, averaged out, about 70% of the city’s collection crew filed claims in 1988.

The medical costs for claims filed by garbage workers with the city in 1988 are $98,002 to date, and indemnity payments have totaled $70,592. Indemnity costs arise from payments made to city employees who are temporarily or permanently disabled.

At Very High Risk

“The men and women who pick up our trash are probably more at risk than any of us imagine,” said Joseph A. Kinney, director of the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago. “They get injured often and suffer disabling injuries. . . . They’re handling hazardous materials that are often thrown in with household trash. They may be wearing gloves and dust masks, but not respirators. You have every illusion that their jobs are safe, but the risks have risen dramatically.”

In San Diego, garbage collectors accept the risks for a job that pays $9.98 an hour at the entry level and a top pay of $14.16.


Hurbert Holmes, 56, who has collected garbage for the city 35 years, agreed that a trash man’s job has gotten more dangerous. “I’ve had battery acid and motor oil on my clothes and face, but you never know what you’re going to find in a trash can these days,” said Holmes, who is called “Sarge” by co-workers.

Albert Llamas, who has been dubbed “Acid Man” by other garbage collectors, said one major problem is acids and acid containers thrown in the garbage. Llamas, an 11-year sanitation employee, suffered a harrowing experience earlier this month in a Rancho Penasquitos neighborhood.

‘Back Was on Fire’

“I was compacting (trash) when chlorine shot out of a container and hit me in the back. . . . It felt like my back was on fire, and I ran to a house, turned on the hose and put water on my back. I told somebody to call the paramedics and they came and watered me some more,” said Llamas.

Llamas’ brother, Joe, who has worked as a garbage collector 10 years, said “a lot of people don’t have common sense.”

“Last week, on my La Jolla route, somebody put hot fireplace ashes in the trash. When I dumped the can in the hopper, the back of my truck started to burn,” said Joe Llamas.

Another collector who works out of the Central Facility at 20th and B streets has been given the title of “Cyanide Man,” said Richard Burke, 35, and a 16-year veteran of garbage collection in San Diego. The 350-pound Burke, who is also Local 127’s sergeant-at-arms, said that “Cyanide Man” picked up a load that included a container of liquid cyanide.


“The guy compacted the trash. When he turned around, he saw a little blue cloud forming in the hopper. He ran . . . . You know, they use that stuff to execute people,” Burke said.

Hip, Knee and Leg Injuries

Local 127 President Garcia said the city’s garbage collectors are treated by the same sports medicine clinic that treats injured San Diego Charger players. “We sustain the same injuries they do. But we do it every day of our lives, not just for a season,” Garcia said.

Hernias, pulled muscles and back injuries are common to garbage collectors. But hip, knee and leg injuries are “what bring your career to an end,” Garcia added. According to Garcia, a garbage collector can jump on and off a truck up to 1,200 times a day, putting extraordinary stress on a trash man’s hips, knees and legs.

“Tell people that they can make our job safer by using common sense,” said Joe Llamas. “Don’t put anything in the trash that they wouldn’t want to breathe or touch. And please, don’t overload the cans or trash bags. We don’t have to pick up anything over 50 pounds, but most of us do.”

By law, homeowners are not allowed to include toxic substances like paint, paint thinner, engine oil or pesticides with household trash. Several garbage collectors said these items are usually hidden in the middle of the can.

“But sometimes trash men can tell when there’s something in a can or bag that shouldn’t be there,” Holmes said. “Sometimes all you have to do is turn around and look at the house. If you see someone peeking through the blinds you know there’s something in the trash can that shouldn’t be there. . . . But too often you don’t know about the paint thinner and motor oil until you pack the truck.”


Homeowners can dispose of toxic substances by calling the county’s hazardous-waste pickup office at 236-2267.