Philly Street Sweepers Face Health Hazards

January 24, 2020

A pilot program run by the Philadelphia Streets Department has workers worried about their health. The experimental program has the workers use gas-powered leaf blowers to move trash and debris from the curb into the street so that a broom truck can sweep it up. While it saves residents from having to move their cars so the street can be cleaned, the workers using the leaf blowers do not have the proper gear to protect their health while on the job.

Fumes and Feces

Workers operating the gas-powered leaf blowers have a two-stroke engine strapped to their back, with fumes spewing into their faces as they work. Dust and debris fly up around the leaf blower. Even worse, they report that in areas of the city plagued by the opioid epidemic, their work involves clearing used syringes and human feces from the streets. The Philadelphia Streets Department provides workers with safety glasses and disposable paper face masks but does not require workers to wear them.

A labor union group that represents Streets workers is pushing for better safety gear. Members say that the gear provided by the city is low quality and largely ineffective. The dust and dirt can easily evade the paper masks to enter the eyes and nostrils. When the city turns the union’s request for safety gear down, it cites the problem of affordability. However, the union successfully got the city to provide workers with puncture-proof gloves.

Risk of Needle Pricks

Many diseases are transmitted through hypodermic needles, including HIV and Hepatitis C. A used needle containing contaminated blood can pass the disease to someone who suffers an accidental prick. Workers operating the blowers in the Street Department pilot program worry that they could contract an illness from needles jumping up in the air as they move through the streets.

Hepatitis A has seen a recent surge in Philadelphia with 360 reported cases in 2019, compared to an annual norm of two to six cases. Hepatitis A can be transmitted through feces and is also a risk for the Streets workers in the pilot program.

Respiratory Complications

Fumes from gas-powered leaf blowers contain emissions more concentrated than those coming out of cars. Breathing in fumes without personal protective equipment could lead to respiratory complications, according to a Drexel University environmental engineering professor. He adds that other hazards include dust and street debris, which contain harmful heavy metals. The next phase of the program will start in April. The city has not budgeted for upgrading the street workers’ safety equipment and it appears doubtful that anything will change quickly for them.

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