A perk for residents in one of the Bay Area’s wealthiest cities may be crippling workers who collect their garbage.
On trash day in many cities, garbage trucks do most of the work, picking up waste cans at the curb. But in Piedmont half of the city's residents pay extra for sanitation workers to retrieve the loaded bins from their backyards, forcing garbage collectors to do all the heavy lifting.
Sanitation workers tell the Investigative Unit that this arduous lifting on steep terrain has contributed to more than a dozen serious injuries, while their pleas for safety reforms and proper training have gone ignored for nearly a decade.
While Piedmont’s rolling hills and stately homes make it a desirable place to live, sanitation worker Marc Godfrey says that also makes it a dangerous place to work.
“The accounts are pretty treacherous,” Godfrey told NBC Bay Area. “You’re going up steep hills, down hills. Upstairs, downstairs.”
In 2008, the city of Piedmont hired Richmond Sanitary Services, a subsidiary of Republic Services, to manage the city’s waste.
Godfrey worked for three and a half years collecting recyclables and green waste in Piedmont until fracturing his back last fall.
“What it’s doing to your body it’s the constant lift and twist, lift and twist,” Godfrey said.
Godfrey has been out of work for the past five months due to the wear and tear of lifting countless garbage cans in Piedmont backyards. He is currently undergoing physical therapy to help heal the bone spurs in his vertebrae.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit went undercover, following waste collection routes in Piedmont, to observe these conditions first hand.
NBC Bay Area cameras captured workers lugging large transport containers into backyards, emptying 35-gallon and 65-gallon waste bins into the receptacles, and pulling the loaded containers to the trucks waiting on the street. Often times, the workers navigated steep staircases and big hills. Employees say the bins could weigh upwards of 200 pounds.
While most cities offer some form of backyard service to residents, typically the elderly and disabled, workers say what makes Piedmont unique is that homeowners can have an unlimited number of recycling and green waste bins. The sanitation workers say they have to lift them all.
Backyard service costs just $6 more per month than curbside service, and it’s a popular option among residents. Nearly half of all homeowners pay for backyard service.
Compare that to Mill Valley, a city with roughly the same number of residents, and the percentage is in the single digits. According to Jim Iavarone, the managing director of Mill Valley Refuse, 8 percent of homeowners in the city pay for backyard service.
In Berkeley, a city that is just as hilly as Piedmont, 1 percent of homes signed up for backyard pickup, according to city records obtained by NBC Bay Area.
The Investigative Unit spoke to a half dozen employees of Richmond Sanitary Service who say their on-the-job injuries required physical rehab or surgery. They estimate at least 15 workers have been seriously injured on Piedmont routes.
Paul Fernandez says he crushed the bones in his hands when he slipped carrying a bin down the stairs in 2013. The injuries required four surgeries. Now he’s missing three bones in each wrist.
“I can’t do the simple things such as tying my own shoes; I can’t open a bottle of water,” he said. “I can’t throw a ball to my grandchildren. I can’t pick up my grandchildren.
Joseph Brown tore his rotator cuff. He’s gone under the knife three times, and is facing a possible fourth surgery.
He says the constant lifting during four years on the job in Piedmont caused the injury. In 2011, the company moved him to a different city on a new route that doesn’t entail much lifting.
“Nowhere else in this company do you do the work you do in Piedmont and nowhere else in this company are you getting injured as rapidly as Piedmont,” Brown said. “We are never trained to lift anything. We are never trained to lift together. We just winged it.”
HISTORY OF COMPLAINTS
Workers say they have asked the company to train them on how to lift the bins without getting hurt. But they say they never received any training on how to weather the conditions in Piedmont.
Brown first raised the concern to Richmond Sanitary Service nearly a decade ago.
“Our issues with the lack of training and consistency are being unheard,” he wrote to the company’s general manager in 2010.
Two years later Brown complained to OSHA, saying workers were getting injured servicing backyards.
The company responded to state inspectors saying employees are “trained to request their partner’s assistance” or to leave bins in the backyards with notes for homeowners if they containers too heavy. The company also said manual lifting is covered at least once a year in safety meetings.
But many workers contend that the waste bins they are collecting from backyards are designed to be lifted mechanically and not by hand.
Godfrey filed his own complaint with OSHA in 2016, saying the company failed to train employees on how to properly lift the bins and that the hazards are injuring workers.
His concerns were confirmed earlier this year when the state issued a violation to Richmond Sanitary Services. Inspectors found the company “did not provide effective training” and “did not correct unsafe conditions after several employees complained about lifting heavy waste toters on these routes.”
Richmond Sanitary Service declined to be interviewed for this report. A spokesman said the company won’t comment until the state closes its investigation. The company is currently appealing the OSHA violation.
CHANGES TO PIEDMONT WASTE MANAGEMENT
Despite a history of complaints, Piedmont City Administrator Paul Benoit told NBC Bay Area that he had no idea about the workers’ safety concerns until he received an anonymous email in December outlining the injuries workerw say are associated with backyard service.
A 2015 audit of Piedmont’s waste collection services notes the city’s challenging geographic area places a significant physical demand on workers, but found Richmond Sanitary Service’s collection methods are consistent with reasonable industry practices.
Benoit says he is now working to address worker safety in the city’s new waste collection contract. The current agreement with Richmond Sanitary Service is scheduled to end next summer.
“There are things we ought to be heads up about, and that we can actually protect against in the upcoming [request for proposal],” Benoit told NBC Bay Area. “It’s a concern and it’s something we can help be protective of moving forward.”
In the new contract, the city is asking bidders to explain ways of “minimizing workers’ compensation concerns” and advising that bins should be “carried easily and without excessive strain.”
For the workers still on the job, Godfrey says he hopes speaking out will prompt Richmond Sanitary Service to take a closer look at safety and training.
“There is no safe way to lift one of these or to do this job when the [bins] are in the backyard,” Godfrey said. “There should be one uniform way to do it and if there’s not, eliminate it. Bring everything to the curb.”
Benoit says backyard service in Piedmont is here to stay for the foreseeable future. However, residents will be charged per bin when the next waste collection contract begins in July 2018, he said. The city anticipates that the pricing change will cut down on the number of bins workers have to lift.