Sanitation workers testify to job hazards By Alex De Grand
Maybe some thought it was a little melodramatic when sanitation worker David Sams pointed to an empty wheelchair and asked who would be the next worker in that chair during a June 26,2000 city council budget meeting.
But that theatrical touch was prophetic.
Three days after that meeting where about 50 sanitation workers asked city lawmakers to award them hazardous duty retirement benefits, a worker was seriously injured on the job near Andover Drive and Cooper Drive.
Glen Davis, a sanitation worker for approximately 13 years, was hit in the head with a metal pipe that swung wildly as it went into the garbage truck compressor.
"I've never seen anyone fall like that unless they were hit by Mike Tyson," said Keith Clark, a coworker who helped Davis load the pipe into the truck. "It knocked him straight down on his back. It knocked him out."
Clark recalled how he held Davis' head in his lap, applying a wet rag to keep him conscious until an ambulance arrived.
"[Davis] was foaming at the mouth," Clark said.
Clark said he tried to radio for help but there were too many people cutting in. Fortunately, he said, an alert neighbor was already on the phone to police.
The neighbor, Chris Poulton, said he appreciates the work sanitation workers do and would support their push for hazardous duty benefits.
"They have to handle lots of stuff we discard and the rest of us don't want to handle," Poulton said, mentioning the unhealthy bacteria that grows on trash as just one hazard.
For his part, Davis said he remembers the pipe coming at him but then it's all a blank.
"I don't remember anything after that," Davis said. "Next thing I knew, I was in the hospital."
Davis said he was diagnosed with a concussion and x-rays revealed a spot on his brain that will need further examination.
Davis complained the blow has caused dizziness and memory loss and the fall injured his back.
Interestingly, Davis said, the accident occurred on his first day back to regular duty following time off for another job-related injury.
"Right after Memorial Day, it was really hot and it's mandatory to wear the hard hat," Davis said. "But I got sunstroke and was off for about four weeks."
Davis added he has been hurt other times on the job.
"A Herbie flipped off [the device lifting the can into the truck] and hit me in the mouth, breaking a tooth," Davis said.
Once, he recalled, a paint can flew out of the truck and sent varnish into his eyes.
Another time, Davis said, he was hit by a car as he tried to dodge a Herbie falling from the truck. The car ran over his leg, but there was no permanent damage, he said.
"I was blessed that God was with me," Davis said.
Davis said he isn't the only one to suffer these mishaps: "Anybody who's been here a long time has had some kind of accident. Something will happen."
Clark, a sanitation worker for just five months, said he never expected to be involved in this type of situation so quickly.
The city's official record shows more than 500 injuries suffered by sanitation workers over the last decade, but Davis said a number of accidents are not reported.
The city is in the process of establishing a committee, chaired by Councilman George Brown, to look at the sanitation workers' concerns.
The committee is expected to include two council members, two sanitation workers and two community representatives, among others. Brown said the first meeting could occur during the council's break, July 14-August 11.
Brown said he is "certainly sympathetic to the low guy on the totem pole," but he cautioned he has a lot to learn and doesn't want to prejudge the situation.
Some supporting the workers' cause charge one reason the wages and working conditions are so poor is that the sanitation workers are disproportionately black. Indeed, many of the sanitation workers and their supporters invoke the name of Martin Luther King Jr. who was killed when he tried to help sanitation workers in Memphis.
Brown said he could not comment on what role race plays in the situation before the committee begins its work.
In the meantime, Sams said he is opening an account at Bank One with $100 of his own money to raise funds for Davis.
Hopefully, Sams said, enough money can be raised so Davis can afford to take time off from his second job, something most sanitation workers have because the pay is so low for sanitation work. Last month, a city spokeswoman said the mayor's budget, recently approved by the city council, raised starting salaries for sanitation workers to $8.26 an hour.
"The fund will cover his second income so he can take time off and not worry about having to come back too soon," Sams said.
"We have hazardous jobs, but the city doesn't pay us enough to take time off," Sams continued. "Co-workers have to take care of their own because the city won't."