Heavy loads that city workers used to toss into garbage trucks without a care are now being left on the side of the street as the city tries to persuade its garbage collectors to avoid work-related injuries.
The city is enforcing its 45-gallon trash container limit in the first of many changes designed to cut back on workers’ compensation claims.
Schenectady workers hurt themselves 30 percent more often than workers in cities of similar size, according to a 2005 study. The injury rate is so high that Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen watched his workers last month to determine how they were hurting themselves so often.
He was aghast when he saw them heft 90-gallon trash cans over their heads or reach into the containers blindly to grab the trash.
The tall, wide cans are used by automated garbage trucks in the suburbs. The city does not use such trucks because the automatic arm would be blocked by parked cars.
The city has always had a rule against using such large cans, but it turns out that workers have been emptying them without regard to their safety, officials determined. One resident said his 90-gallon can had been emptied regularly for two years.
City officials are developing a plan that they hope will encourage workers to report dangerous conditions as soon as they occur, rather than waiting until a supervisor happens upon them.
“For this to be successful, you have to get the unions to buy in,” said Director of Administration John Paolino, who has been assigned the job of reducing workers’ compensation claims by convincing employees that safety is worth the extra effort.
It’s been a hard struggle so far.
On previous inspections, garbage collectors have been found without proper boots and gloves. On hot days, some even take off their shirts.
It took the city more than a year to negotiate rules regarding turnout gear, but those rules have not reduced the injury rate substantially. This year, the city had to increase its workers’ compensation fund by $450,000, a 45 percent jump. It pays out more than $2 million a year to injured workers.
While police and firefighters receive the most money, garbage collectors are a close third — and considering that police and firefighters get paid far more, there may be more claims from garbage collectors than any other city department.
Olsen says the garbage collectors have the most dangerous job in the city.
“There’s ice, they’re jumping on and off the truck all day — I think it’s more dangerous than police,” he said.
He told his workers that even reaching into a 90-gallon container is too dangerous.
“There are syringes. There’s broken glass. There are items in there that can hurt them,” Olsen said. “I do not want anyone out on workers’ comp, but far more importantly, these people are human beings. I don’t want them injured. I find it appalling that some people think it’s acceptable to have my men digging in their garbage.”
The new policy has already irritated one resident, who said the city could avoid its workers’ compensation costs and every other garbage collection expense by simply giving the job to a private company.
Peter Fusco, who helped Utica switch to private hauling, said residents would prefer to pay for their own garbage pickup and see their taxes decrease.
“We did a study [in Utica]. We ended up going private for precisely this reason, the workers’ compensation,” Fusco said. “We didn’t have these claims anymore because we weren’t in the business anymore.”
City officials have argued that even with the new garbage fee, the cost to residents is less than what a private company would charge. The city also picks up items that aren’t accepted by private companies, including stoves, refrigerators and couches.
Fusco isn’t convinced. He said residents would support a change if the city actually reduced taxes by the full amount it spends now on garbage collection.
“We have this idea of saving money here to spend it there,” he said. “Maybe we can reduce the tax burden.”