It was a rainy afternoon on February 1, 1968, in Memphis, TN, when Echol Cole and Robert Walker were trying to avoid the storm by climbing into what was called at the time a wiener-barrel truck. Something went wrong and the two sanitation workers were crushed to death by the outdated, malfunctioning collection vehicle. 12 days later, more than one thousand African American men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike in protest of low safety standards and low wages.
On April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN, the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in which he focused on the sanitation strike and addressed the striking workers present at the church. He told them, “Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be—and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
The next day, Martin Luther King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. That was just over 50 years ago and April 4, 1968, remains one of the darkest days in the history of our nation.
A half century has passed since the Memphis sanitation strike, and solid waste collection workers still have the fifth deadliest job in the US.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), things have improved a bit. The 2016 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries shows that the rate of fatalities among waste collection workers recently decreased by more than 10%. Collection workers had a rate of 34.1 fatalities per 100,000 full-time employees in 2016, compared to 38.8 in 2015. In 2016, 31 collection workers were killed on the job, compared to 36 the year before.
David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO, says, “SWANA is pleased that the overall collection worker fatality rate declined a bit in 2016, but remains very concerned about the high frequency of fatal incidents involving solid waste workers and third-parties, such as other drivers or pedestrians.” He adds, “However, the sad truth is that we are still the fifth most dangerous job in America, with a higher workplace fatality rate than police officers or firefighters. This is no time to take a victory lap.”
And so the work continues relentlessly. Advocacy groups and companies are working with federal agencies to adopt or improve safety regulations, protocols, and practices. Changes in this regard are being made from MRFs to landfills to collection routes. Safety technology continues to evolve from improved camera systems to better sensors and alarms to safety-minded vehicle design with on-board computer safety solutions. SWANA will announce the 2018 Safety Awards winners in August at WASTECON in Nashville, TN, as companies and municipalities compete again for “Best Safety Innovation” and “Biggest Safety Improvement.”
Philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” which may have morphed into the saying, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”So let’s remember and celebrate the history of Echol Cole, Robert Walker, the Memphis Sanitation Strike, Martin Luther King Jr., and all those who have perished tragically. Be eager to try innovations and new methods. What we do in the next 50 years will be our history…and our legacy.