A sanitation worker (or sanitary worker) is a person responsible for cleaning, maintaining, operating, or emptying the equipment or technology at any step of the sanitation chain.: 2 This is the definition used in the narrower sense within the WASH sector. More broadly speaking, sanitation workers may also be involved in cleaning streets, parks, public spaces, sewers, stormwater drains, and public toilets. Another definition is: "The moment an individual’s waste is outsourced to another, it becomes sanitation work.": 4 Some organizations use the term specifically for municipal solid waste collectors, whereas others exclude the workers involved in management of solid waste (rubbish, trash) sector from its definition.
Those workers who maintain and empty on-site sanitation systems (e.g. pit latrines, septic tanks) contribute to functional fecal sludge management systems. Without sanitation workers, the Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6.2 ("safely managed sanitation for all") cannot be achieved. It is important to safeguard the dignity and health of sanitation workers.
Sanitation work can be grouped into formal employment and informal employment. Sanitation workers face many challenges. These relate to occupational safety and health (diseases related to contact with the excreta; injuries; the dangers of working in confined spaces, legal and institutional issues, as well as social and financial challenges. One of the main issues is the social stigma attached to sanitation work.
A report by World Bank, International Labour Organization, WaterAid and WHO from 2019 defines "sanitation workers" to include toilet cleaners and caretakers in domestic, public, and institutional settings; those who empty pits from pit latrines and vaults of septic tanks and other fecal sludge handlers; those who clean sewers and manholes; and those who work at sewage treatment plants and fecal sludge treatment plants and disposal sites.: 2
In the United States however, some organizations use the term exclusively for municipal solid waste collectors. A famous example of "sanitation worker" referring to waste collectors is the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968, supported by Martin Luther King Jr., which brought together both waste collectors and sewerage maintenance workers.
Another definition is: "The moment an individual’s waste is outsourced to another, it becomes sanitation work.": 4
Since there are various definitions of sanitation, it is not surprising that there are various definitions of "sanitation worker".: 4
More generally, a waste collector (also bin man, garbage collector, etc.) deals with municipal solid waste.
Sanitation workers provide a critical public service, essential for our daily lives and the environment. Yet their working conditions expose them to the worst consequences of poor sanitation such as debilitating infections, injuries, social stigma and even death every day.
In some countries, human excreta is still collected from certain types of toilet (such as bucket toilets and pit latrines) without mechanical equipment and without personal protective equipment. These workers are "scooping out feces from ‘dry’ latrines and overflowing pits". They are usually working in the informal labour sector and are commonly referred to as "informal sanitation workers". They have weak legal protection results from working informally and do note follow occupational health and safety standards.: 7
The challenges faced by sanitation workers can be categorized as follows: occupational safety and health, legal and institutional issues, financial insecurity, and social issues.: 7
Sanitation workers are at, an increased risk of becoming ill from waterborne diseases. To reduce this risk and protect against illness, such as diarrhea, safety measures should be put in place for workers and employers.
Sanitation workers are at an increased risk of becoming ill from waterborne diseases. To reduce this risk and protect against illness, such as diarrhea, measures have been proposed for occupational health: Basic hygiene practices for workers (handwashing etc.); sanitation workers should be provided with proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and be trained on how to use it (i.e. goggles, face mask, overalls, gloves, boots); vaccinations (e.g. tetanus, polio, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations. One specific disease that concerns workers in sewers is Leptospirosis, spread through contact with rat urine.
Technology must match the needs of the workers. The most important exposure point is during the emptying of container based facilities were pathogen concentrations in the waste are the highest. Workers are more likely to wear protective gear if they are given a choice of suitable clothing.
In many developing countries, sanitation workers often have to work with weak legal protection, missing or weak standard operating procedures, weak law enforcement and few policies protecting their rights and health.: x
The safety of sanitation workers is influenced by:: 47
In developing countries, low-grade, unskilled sanitation workers often face social stigma and discrimination.: 10 This is especially true when sanitation is linked to a caste-based structure and often allocated to castes perceived to be lower in the caste hierarchy, such as in India and Bangladesh. This stigma can result in intergenerational discrimination, where children of sanitation workers often struggle to escape the vicious cycle of limited opportunities and sanitation work.: 10
There can be implicit or explicit discrimination, which hinders workers’ social inclusion, their opportunities to shift careers, and social mobility. Furthermore, alcoholism and drug addiction to evade the working conditions are common among some sanitation workers in developing countries.: 10
Sanitation workers, particularly those in information employment who manually empty septic tanks and pit latrines, are often subjected to social stigma for their work.
In European history the terms "nightsoil collectors" or "nightmen" and gong farmers were used. The current term for the safe collection of human excreta is fecal sludge management. Towns with sanitation systems based on pail closets (bucket toilets in outhouses) relied on frequent emptying, performed by workers driving "honeywagons", a precursor to the vacuum truck now used to pump out septage from septic tanks. The municipal emptying of pail toilets continued in Australia into the second half of the twentieth century; these were known as dunnies and the workers were dunnymen.
Sanitation Workers typically earn an average monthly salary of $2,226 in the United States, although this figure can vary widely between states. As on 2022, the salary in New York could range between $47,371 and $89,339. For instance, the state of New York provides total annual wages of up to $91,336 for Sanitation Workers after 20 years of service. In 2020, some sanitation workers in New York City earned up to $300,000 as a result of shortage in staff and boosted pay due to snowstorms.
Sanitation Worker salaries in Zambia range from 870 ZMK($41.92) per month as their minimum salary to 2,480 ZMK($123.76) per month as maximum salary.
Main article: Bayakou (trade)
In Haiti, sanitation workers in the informal sector are called bayakou, which comes from Haitian Creole. The capital Port-au-Prince is one of the largest cities in the world without a sewer system.
Further information: Manual scavenging
In India the term manual scavengers is used historically for a subsection of sanitation workers. The official definition in Indian law is "manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit". The practice has officially been banned since 1993 but still continues.
Sanitation workers in India who clean streets may also be called "street sweepers".
It has been stated that sanitation workers in India are "overwhelmingly Dalits, and are in fact from ‘scavenging castes’". The democracy of India is associated with caste system, and programs like Swachh Bharat fight against caste-based discrimination in India.
“Sanitation workers” can be used as a translation for the Hindi word "safai karamcharis". This includes "manual scavengers", but also people who work as sweepers, are employed to clean streets and open spaces, collect solid waste, and clean open drains and public toilets. Another commonly used term is "Pourakarmikas" which includes manual scavengers, sewer workers, sanitation workers.
An estimate in 2018 put the number of "sanitation workers" in India at 5 million, and 50% of them being women.
In Zambia, organisations such as the SNV Netherlands Development Organisation under their WASH SDG Programme and the Lusaka Water and Sanitation Company (LWSC) under a project known as the Lusaka Sanitation Programme (LSP) supported by international organisations including the German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH, have been working on projects to "legalise and make sanitation workers more visible and create the recognition and respect that they so rightfully deserve."
Lusaka is one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa and the majority of the population live in informal, peri-urban settlements. Various organisations in Lusaka attempt to make sanitation workers more visible and create more recognition and respect for them. They also aim to design projects and processes that improve their working environment and conditions, and help to provide the required investments to support their enterprises.
Pit latrine emptiers empty the toilet pits and septic tanks in communities. They enter inspection holes and sewers to fix or unblock them and then transport the fecal waste to treatment plants, while maintaining the sanitation facilities. If septic tanks and pit latrines are not emptied regularly, waste flows into the groundwater, contaminating the environment and surrounding water supplies. The response from society towards pit emptiers is "stigmatized, lowly, and invalid" despite the importance of the work that they do.
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