Sanitation director recommends replacement of trucks without AC

by Jordan Green

The Winston-Salem Sanitation Department will request four new automated side-loader trucks in the next fiscal year budget to replace four vehicles that lack air conditioning.

A handful of employees in the department have complained that drivers in non-air-conditioned trucks have passed out from heat exhaustion during the hot months in the summer. The remaining 21 trucks in the department’s fleet are equipped with air conditioning.

Assistant City Manager Greg Turner said plans to replace the trucks have been in the works for some time as a matter of improving efficiency, and predate the workers complaints. The new trucks will cost from $200,000 to $250,000 each, Turner said, and would be paid off over a period of five years.

The city has gradually replaced its fleet of rear-loader trucks as they have worn out since Winston-Salem began the transition from backyard garbage collection to curbside collection. The old rear-loader trucks required a crew of a driver and two laborers to transport garbage from residents’ houses to the back of the truck and then place carts on a tipper to load into the compactor. The new trucks can be operated by a driver alone, who mechanically manipulates a sidearm that picks up the cart on the curb and dumps the contents into the compactor.

Councilman Robert Clark, who chairs the council’s public works committee, said he supports the request.

The wife of sanitation driver Donald Gore told city council in February that her husband collapsed on the floor on several occasions upon returning home on hot days after driving a route in a truck without air conditioning.

Councilman Dan Besse said he was not convinced that the lack of air conditioning in trucks has caused significant health and safety problems for employees.

“I don’t mean to discount anything anybody says in open comment,” Besse said in an interview, “but when you’re dealing with significant expenditures you need to ask the question of whether you’re dealing with an isolated anecdote that’s not well founded or a pattern of problems.”

Besse asked Sanitation Director Johnnie Taylor during a meeting of the public works committee last week about health and safety considerations related to backyard pickup.

Taylor noted a correlation, responding that employee injuries have decreased since the city began the transition from backyard pickup. He said, “Less exposure has definitely benefited the department.”

About 2,700 households have obtained exemptions from curbside pickup and receive backyard garbage collection service on the basis of applications attesting that no one is physically able to roll the cart across the lawn. Hundreds of other households in multifamily housing — mainly condominiums and town homes — receive blanket exemptions because management contends that it’s not practical to collect garbage in bulk containers. As a result, drivers park the truck, and help laborers collect garbage in bags by hand and walk it back to the trucks.

“Most of those injuries that I’ve reviewed have been slips, trips or falls,” Taylor said. “Some of those things are the result of maybe holes in the yard. Other things we deal with are dew in the morning or a slippery surface.”

Taylor said employees have not experienced a significant number of punctures, cut and other injuries resulting from directly handling garbage bags in the course of performing backyard garbage pickup.

The public works committee reviewed a recommendation by a citizens efficiency committee to require that each resident obtain a doctor’s note as a condition for receiving backyard garbage pickup. Staff estimates that the more stringent approach would reduce utilization of the special service and save the city $114,000. About 3.5 percent of Winston-Salem households are exempt from curbside pickup, compared to roughly 1 percent in other cities across the state, including Greensboro.

“Everybody else requires a physician’s statement,” said Clark, the lone Republican on city council and representative of the affluent West Ward. “I don’t know why we don’t. I think when you abuse a privilege you lose it. And we are abusing this privilege.”

Besse, a Democrat who represents the Southwest Ward, has pledged support for the current policy.

“I think that’s an assertion without evidence to back it up,” he said. “The citizens committee’s numbers are based on the estimate that our rate is three-and-a-half times the other cities. They are making the assumption that we’d go down to about 758 people. So they’re making the assumption that about 2,000 citizens are lying to us. I don’t see any evidence to back that up. I think it’s more likely to be a matter of difficulties in getting a doctor’s note. People do legitimately have problems getting the cart to the curb.”

Besse added that other cities make it too difficult for disabled residents to get exemptions from curbside service.

Councilman James Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents the Southeast Ward, concurred with Besse, noting approvingly that Winston-Salem has been recognized as an ideal place to retire.

“I think this is a situation where we have to assume that everybody’s innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

“I think the people who signed up are truthful. And you have to take into consideration those who disproportionately may not have healthcare. That could put an undue burden on certain seniors and families.”

Taylor is not a member of the public works committee, but he pledged to vote against any proposal to reform the backyard service program that might advance to the full council for consideration.

Clark advocated that the list of people receiving exemptions be published as a means of shaming those who are abusing the system.

“My mother is 85 years old, and she rolls her cart to the curb,” he said. “Why are we three and a half times higher than the other cities? Give me the names. Print ’em.”