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The work of refuse collectors and loaders involves carting away garbage from homes, business premises and companies and dumping them into the waiting trucks for onward disposal at waste collection points. Besides providing a source of living for this group of people, the job poses health risks. But, what are these hazards that could harm their lives? ISIOMA MADIKE, in this resort, consults the experts



Taking out trash is usually not a chore assigned to a particular person in homes. But once it’s thrown out, it becomes someone else’s job to pick it up. In most developed societies, it simply entails the collection, keeping, treatment and disposal. This is done in such a way as to render it harmless to human and animal life in an ecologically friendly fashion.

In those climes, dumping of waste is done in a systematic and organised manner. Often, they would channel it through or into landfills or pathways to ensure that they are disposed of, with attention to acceptable public health and environmental safeguard. This eventually results in the abatement or total elimination of pollution.

But, in Nigeria, the story is different. Over the years, managing waste disposal has become a major concern, despite attempts by successive governments and private organisations in that direction. It is a common sight across the country today to see heaps of festering waste dumps in almost every nook and cranny of major cities. Residential apartments, markets, waterways, highways, streets and undeveloped plots of land have, in the process, been turned to waste dumps for many households.

However, while many are worry over the phenomenon, only a few are concern about the health hazards of those who daily collect the refuse. The stench from the wastes would upset anyone driving or working past the refuse collecting vehicles. The offensive odour hangs stubbornly in the air and pervades the surrounding residential and business/industrial environments. In the heavy duty vehicles are all manners of garbage; from solid to liquid and chemicals of all sorts.
A peep into the trucks will unfold wastes that include garbage, rags, bottles, pets, irons, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, lead, dead batteries, medical wastes and animal carcasses. One can also find human excrement feasted upon by rodents, flies and roaches.

According to a young man, who identified himself simply as Isaac, has been working as a refuse collector for close to seven years now, the collectors/loaders are not even aware of how risky this daily routine is. Although, he is enlightened enough to know the dangers he is being exposed to on a regular basis, this cannot be said of his many colleagues on the job.

Isaac is only managing to cope with the demands of the job while praying that something better comes up pretty soon. His work schedule starts at 6.30am when he reports for duty and ends when he is asked to go home. “There is no definite closing time,” he said.

He told Saturday Telegraph that he and his colleagues’ work every day of the week including public holidays. The work, he said, involves carting away refuse from homes, business premises and companies and dumping them into the waiting trucks for onward disposal at waste collection points. Incidentally, he, like many of his likes, is not conscious of the need for any insurance cover in the event of any mishap arising from the job.

He said: “Such hazards could come from chemical burns, disposable needles, broken glasses and falling objects from overloaded containers. It could also emanate from solid waste, contact with asbestos, inhalation of dust and attacks by pests such as ants, flies, cockroaches and rodents. The inclement weather conditions, which we usually work in, chokes from traffic smokes and foul odours also affect our wellbeing.

“These hazardous substances can be contacted through skin contact, especially through cuts or through contact with the eye’s mucus membrane, ingestion through hand to mouth contact commonly experienced when eating, drinking or smoking, and inhalation through the lungs. The risks are, however, reduced through the proper use of masks, gloves and goggles, which we are expected to wear while on duty. Unfortunately, many of us are ignorant of this.”

Ade, 32, also spends his day pulling out rubbish and excreta from the city’s drains. The father-of-two, who once dreamt of joining the Army, is a graduate of History. He joined the then Private Sector Participation (PSP), years back up till recently when the Lagos State government replaced the operators with Cleaner Lagos Initiative. He then applied and was engaged also as a trash collector/loader.

“I joined as a field worker,” he told Saturday Telegraph. “I thought eventually I would progress and be promoted to a senior level. However, seeing my interest in studies, my seniors encouraged me to continue with my education. While I missed my dream, I have come too far to have any regrets.”

Ade leaves home at 6am and finishes only by 9 at night. The stench in the drains is so unbearable, he said, that people could not walk anywhere without covering their noses. He usually physically comes in contact with the hazardous waste and works without any protective gear. “It is too late for me to find something that suits my qualification,” he said, adding, “I hope one day my dedication will bring benefits from the corporation’s policy for regular employees.”

However, Isaac and Ade are not the only ones doing this job. There are many of them. Innocent was one of such people. His usual pickup route is Bariga, Lagos. But, a freak accident ended his life. No one knows what actually happened, but people said Innocent was standing behind his truck when it started moving in reverse. It knocked him over, dragging him 10 feet before crashing through a fence. Police found him dead when they arrived.

At first glance, garbage collecting may not seem extremely hazardous. But accounts of those involved on the job shows that it can, in fact, be both dangerous and even deadly. Two thirds of these deaths are vehicle related, and most occurred when the worker slips or fall from a refuse-collection truck, hit or run over by their own vehicle.

Also potentially menacing are the contents of trashcans. In them, reckless owners sometimes dump broken glasses, human excrement, and chemical waste. Garbage collectors are often disconcerted to find more than garbage in wastebaskets, which often times terminate their lives. Indeed, many of them have died after inhaling fumes from hazardous chemicals someone illegally poured into a trashcan.

Like other professions that require physical labour, waste collecting also put tremendous strain on the workers as well. “Vehicular traffic and repeated lifting while on the run causes hundreds of crippling injuries each year,” said Toye, a refuse loader of over 10 years. According to him, some injuries stem from constantly repeating awkward movements, such as jumping in and out of garbage trucks and lifting cans that can sometimes weigh 100 pounds or more.

The weight and the often-awkward positions can cause back strain and ankle sprains. And on days when the road is slick, lifting heavy cans can lead to a nasty fall, especially since collectors never know what to expect. “The cans vary widely and unpredictably in weight, which is a big problem.

“I was rolling the can out and it fell out of my hands. I bent over too far to grab it, and it sort of fell on my foot. I could feel that I had pulled something inside,” Ade said. A doctor who later examined him diagnosed a hernia and recommended an operation to correct that.
It was not the first injury he had suffered as a garbage collector. He had strained his back badly while on his daily route about five years ago. “I felt a slight pain but I finished the day that time,” he said. “But the next day I couldn’t even tie my shoes. The doctor gave me some medications to cushion the effect, and I went back to work a few days later.”

According to doctors, waste collectors suffer the most injuries to their lower backs and are plagued with fractured feet, bruised knees, and torn hands from picking up so many cans as well. The experts also said that garbage collectors are twice more likely to suffer from stomach problems than the general workforce, and they are many more times likely to suffer allergies, infections, and respiratory problems.

Uchenna was picking up trash one day when blood started flowing from his forearm, which had been punctured by a broken wine glass in a garbage bag. The deep cut pierced a vein, required six stitches and kept him off the job for two weeks. The risk of needle sticks and exposure to infectious diseases is a particular concern on routes near medical facilities, according to doctors. Collectors on those routes, they said, get needle sticks “quite often.”

So far, however, there have not been reports of anyone becoming infected with the dreaded Human Immuno Virus (HIV), Hepatitis B or C, or other infectious diseases as a result. Even though it is illegal to dump medical waste in trashcans used by the public, doctors said, it’s an all-too-common violation.

“Hospitals and nursing homes are supposed to treat needles and unused medicines and throwaway (intravenous) units differently than normal garbage and put it in what they call a ‘red bag,’” one doctor, who craved anonymity, said. “But that’s more expensive. So, sometimes they try to get away with pitching it into their regular debris box.”

To avoid the risk of infection, workers, the experts said, should be up to date on their tetanus shots (one every five years); they may also want to consider a Hepatitis B vaccine on the advice of their physicians. They should wear protective gear, including goggles, nose-and-mouth masks, and heavy gloves. Many of them should also keep towels and containers of clean water around to scrub themselves during breaks, doctors recommend.

Former Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Lagos State, Dr. Tope Ojo, said the vast majority of risks that waste collectors face come from the public and what they put in their garbage bags. He recommends educating the public on what they can do to keep these workers safe as very important. Part of the campaign, he insisted, must target towards public education. For example, people should learn about the importance of not overloading bags and ensuring that dangerous items are isolated in the bins.

“I don’t think there’s any consideration for the guys in the garbage truck,” said Ojo. “Many, unfortunately, don’t see them as people they need to worry about. As far as the public is concerned, in my eyes, they are picking up the garbage. Get it done and have a nice day. It is sad.

“People should be made to know that their trash isn’t the only thing they pick up. That kind of drives it home. As homeowners, we have to understand that; it will make it very real. These workers are mothers and fathers. This will make it a mindset so that you as a homeowner, when you’re packing your garbage up, you don’t even have to think about it.

You know you’re not throwing broken glasses in there; you just know what to do.”
Ojo said the immediate impact of inhaling the waste includes increased risk to asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and heart failure. Emphysema, he also said, is a long-term, progressive disease of the lungs that primarily causes shortness of breath due to over-inflation of the alveoli (air sacs in the lung). According to him, more of those health impacts can develop several years later.

A Consultant Cardiologist, Dr. Chinedum Eluogu, who doubles as the publicity secretary of the NMA in Lagos, admitted that inhalation through the lungs could be very injurious to the health of trash collectors and loaders. He recommends immediate distribution of facemasks to such workers as a strategy to reduce infections.

Eluogu called for the evacuation of people working in that sector to avert impending health issues. He said such people could have “immediate clinical symptoms including irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, while in some people, it could trigger more serious ailments. “It can make some people develop difficulty in breathing. It could be worse for the asthma symptoms, depending on the severity; it can kill immediately.”

The consultant cardiologist also spoke on some delayed symptoms in people that inhale particles from the dump. According to him, the pollution can trigger some reactions, including swellings and inflammation, which can narrow the passage of air and blood.

“This can cause pulmonary hypertension in the lungs, which will make it difficult for the right part of the heart to pump blood to the lungs. This would limit oxygen exchange between the heart and the right lung. In such cases, it could cause right heart dysfunction and failure,” Eluogu said.

However, there are those who have suggested bagging and sorting at the point of generation of waste to make it more hygienic for those who collect them. Storage of solid waste at the point of generation usually in bags was first introduced by Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) in the 80’s. It was re-introduced by Bola Tinubu’s administration and supplied free of charge in order to promote solid waste bagging culture.

This has been observed not only to make waste storage hygienic but also to make waste collection a lot faster. But, the initial success appears to have waned. The problem has been how to get it effectively distributed. Currently the approach adopted does not get the material down to most households; only highbrow districts get these bags.

In order to achieve sustainability in the provision of the bags, many are suggesting that the state government should sell it at a subsidised price and make available like all other nylon bags. This will make the bags quite affordable and available like the smaller nylon/ “Ghana-must-go” bags that could be purchased from any trader and street hawkers in the state.

The Lagos State Refuse Disposal Board (LSRDB) was instituted under Edict No. 9 of 1977, which was the first of its kind in West Africa. The board was given the responsibilities of environmental sanitation and domestic refuse collection and disposal in Lagos State.

The board was renamed the Lagos State Waste Management Authority via the enactment of a new Law – Edict No. 55 of 1991, which conferred on the authority additional responsibilities for the collection and disposal of municipal and industrial wastes as well as provision of commercial waste services to the state and local governments of Lagos State.

The board metamorphosed over the years into the agency known today as the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) by virtue of the LAWMA Law 2007, and accrued added responsibilities ranging from management of commercial, industrial, and medical waste streams, highway sanitation, cleaning of drainage and other water bodies, to construction and demolition waste management, among others. LAWMA works closely with the Lagos State Ministry of the Environment and has initiated reforms regarding collection of waste bills and also aims to increase waste recycling.

Before the administration of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode decided to implement the new waste management policy, a study was commissioned to comprehensively look into the issue of the environment. The report showed that LAWMA had about 150 rickety compactors and the PSP operators had some compactors many of which were constantly breaking down on the roads causing traffic gridlock and oozing out offensive stench to residents.

All the compactors then put together were benchmarked against the volume of waste generated in the state and the report clearly showed that they were grossly inadequate and effective to evacuate about 13,000 tonnes of waste generated daily in the state.

But, because the compactors were inadequate, people end up dumping waste in drains, canals and at the end of the day, government spend more public expenditure to clear the drains, and spend more money to give free drugs in the hospitals to children. So, in order to avert the looming disaster, the Ambode administration, after a comprehensive analysis of the report with a team of experts with extensive background on environmental management, decided to implement a major paradigm shift. This allowed the state to join the league of advanced countries with world class holistic environmental management system.

The previous administrations in the state also came up with the idea of Transfer Loading Stations (TLS)/Material Recovery facilities. But like the mantra of the present administration, which is continuity with improvement, the existing of such stations in Agege, Simpson, Oshodi and Mushin are being retrofitted and upgraded to meet up with current realities

With the previous arrangement, adequate provision was only made for waste collection, without arrangement for other critical infrastructures in the value-chain of waste management such as waste depots, transfer loading stations and material recovery facilities. It equally engineered sanitary landfills, and with the new arrangement, these are being put in place as part of the mandate to provide integrated waste management solutions for the treatment of municipal solid waste.

For instance, the TLS performs the fundamental role of driving efficiency into waste collection and transportation services and serves as the middleman in the supply-chain between waste collection vehicles and the final disposal facilities. The TLS now features a central tipping bay, a waste reception bay, administrative buildings and waste processing, while other facilities including the waste depots and engineered sanitary landfills provide world class sanitation structure that includes mechanised sweeping, sorting and recycling, innovative waste bins, and regular waste collection.

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