Photo by DearPioneer via
Photo by DearPioneer via

Our society has a bad habit of making the most important jobs–and the workers that keeps us healthy, happy, and comfortable–the least visible. As a recent article in The Atlantic points out, while citing work from NYU anthropologist Robin Nagle, this invisibility hides some dire issues faced by one essential group of service workers: the folks who make your trash disappear.

Sanitation workers, it turns out, have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. And their work has similarly life-or-death consequences in the long term… “A study done in 1851,” Nagle writes, “concluded that fully a third of the city’s deaths that year could have been prevented if basic sanitary measures had been in place.”

However, these issues aren’t likely to hit the spotlight until the work itself grinds to a halt. After all, nobody notices the role of the garbageman until their trash fails to be collected and lingers sadly on the curb. While the rest of the working world attempts to balance their lives via telecommuting and flexible schedules, sanitation workers are on a strict schedule in order to service the community. Is the honor of being a staple in a functioning society enough?

One of the things that struck me very early on and that continues to puzzle me is the way in which some forms of knowledge are considered more valuable than others…If I stop working tomorrow, I’m not sure New York City will suffer. If the Department of Sanitation, for whatever reason, stops working tomorrow, the city will suffer immediately. So whose work is more important here?

Without a total work stoppage, it seems garbage collectors and the work they do will remain dangerously invisible.



For another take on the invisibility of workers, you can check out an old guest post I wrote over at Sociological Images.