Baking for bin men: life as a refuse collector in COVID-19

As a refuse collector, social distancing is impossible. So how are local government workers like Christian managing during COVID-19?

UNISON rep Christian Groves (pictured) is an HGV driver for Harlow’s refuse collection team, run by Veolia. Throughout COVID-19, he’s felt more supported by the public than his employer.

“Local residents have been so lovely. They’ve been coming out with drinks for us, food and little bags with rubber gloves and hand sanitiser. To be honest, the public have been giving us better equipment than our employer.

“Some people have baked us cakes and kids have drawn us little posters with ‘thank you’ on. It makes you feel really appreciated.”

As a refuse collector, social distancing is a challenge. Christian’s job usually involves spending whole days, shoulder-to-shoulder in a lorry cab with three or four colleagues, visiting thousands of homes a day. He’s worried about catching the virus through his work.

UNISON has agreed guidance with national local government employers, which states clearly that social distancing rules must be adhered to in council vehicles. It is up to employers to find solutions to avoid having more than two people in a cab. Some employers are using mini-vans to take workers to their collection rounds, to avoid crowded cabs. This might mean redeploying drivers from other services, but it has to happen.

“It’s scary for me. I’ve got four young kids and a wife. I don’t want to take anything home to them. My youngest is only a year old. Every day I think: ‘How do I know I haven’t got anything?’ Or the two sat next to me, how do I know?

“A lot of us have young kids, but you go into our team room at work and there’s 30 to 40 blokes, all in the size of a small class room.  I have spoken to the local management about minimising the amount of refuse workers that come to the office every morning”.

UNISON members at the depot do not feel they have had enough communication from the employer about the virus or how to stay safe. It doesn’t feel like the safety of workers is fully considered.

The need for a proper risk assessment to identify the correct PPE is crucial in this environment.

Christian has bought his own face mask on eBay, and is taking other precautionary measures to stay safe, like going to management and getting agreement that he collects his colleagues in the dust cart.

“Every day now I pick up my loaders from their houses in the dust cart before we start work, so they’re not travelling to the office or in the team room. The tip is an hour and a half journey there and back, and I don’t let them come with me in that trip.

“If there’s any way I can cut down the time we spend together in that lorry then I will. That was my suggestion to the management, and I’m doing all I can do.”

“It feels like nothing’s changed for us workwise. It’s so different out there, it’s so weird at the moment, but I’m doing all I can do.

“We’ve all just got to carry on and do our best to stay safe really, but it’s a shame that the workers are coming up with the solutions.”