By Isabela Gladston, contributor
Harrisonburg sanitation supervisor, Patrick Garrison, said he has witnessed and experienced the dangers of physically picking up trash over the 22 years he has been at Harrisonburg Public Works.
Some workers have been stabbed by needles protruding from the trash bags. Others have injured their backs and shoulders from lifting heavy loads of garbage, he said. Last week, between Feb 1-5, for instance, city sanitation workers lifted 291,160 pounds of trash, Garrison said.
Because of the physical dangers and toll of the job, Harrisonburg is implementing the toter trash cart program, in which the city provides households and businesses with standardized carts of either 48 or 96 gallons that can be lifted and dumped into trash trucks using mechanical lifts.
Harsit Patel, support services manager of Harrisonburg Public Works, said the department has pushed for this program for six years.
“Right now we have residents who utilize bags and cans which vary in sizes that our staff can’t lift,” Patel said. “In this new program we buy these containers at a specific size and then we put these lifters on the back of the truck— we’re retrofitting the trucks we currently have.”
Because it’s been in the works for years, Patel said the money for it was already in the city’s budget. He said there will be two lifters on each truck and each costs around $3,500. In total, it costs about $55,000 to retrofit all the trucks in the city’s fleet.
Patel said the cost of providing trash carts to the city’s more than 18,000 households and businesses would be between $600,000 and $650,000.
Earlier this year, the city mailed requests to its trash customers asking them to choose either the 48- or 96-gallon cart. The city had to extend the deadline to make that choice to Jan 24 as a result of U.S. Postal Service delays. Those who did not select one of the sizes were automatically assigned one 96 gallon trash cart. Businesses or residents who want more than one trash cart are allowed to request them, however, additional fees will apply.
Patel said the trash cans are set to be delivered around the middle of March and, according to the toter program’s FAQ page, they will begin being used in early April.
Another advantage the city is touting is “improved curb appeal.” Garrison said the uniformity of the garbage cans will make streets look nicer on trash days. He also said that there won’t be loose trash bags, and critters can’t get into the toters.
“Appearance was important,” Garrison said.
The toter program also dovetails with Harrisonburg’s environmental action plan by helping to keep trash from seeping into the streets and streams because each garbage cart has a lid.
But the biggest change will be to the safety of sanitation workers.
“It was a priority because sanitation workers are the ones handling trash from people who could potentially have COVID,” Patel said.
While this program has been in the works for years, the pandemic added to the urgency of implementing it.
And it will protect the employees’ bodies.
“Our employees pick up around 1 million pounds of trash per year,” Patel said. “This program would drastically reduce that.”
Garrison said many sanitation workers are in their 50s and 60s.
“We’re not young bucks anymore,” he said. “We’ve had several guys that have had shoulder surgeries just from the wear and tear of the job.”
He said that generally speaking, the sanitation workers feel that the new equipment will alleviate many problems they’ve faced in the past.
“I think it’s gonna be positive and safer all the way around,” Garrison said.
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