High time to address occupational hazards of waste pickers

Informal waste sector in India carry out most labour-intensive and least rewarding job; most work and live in hazardous conditions with no security

By Richa Singh
Published: Friday 03 March 2023
Child labour is quite prevalent in waste picking and their life expectancy is low owing to continuous exposure to a hazardous environment. Photo: CSE
Child labour is quite prevalent in waste picking and their life expectancy is low owing to continuous exposure to a hazardous environment. Photo: CSE Child labour is quite prevalent in waste picking and their life expectancy is low owing to continuous exposure to a hazardous environment. Photo: CSE

International Waste Pickers’ Day is celebrated on the first of March every year in memory of the Colombia massacre, where 11 workers were brutally murdered at the University of Barranquilla. For the past 21 years since this tragic event, this day has been remembered to show solidarity with waste pickers for their struggles and hardships. 

For the past several decades, waste pickers and informal recyclers have continued fighting for recognition of their work. They are a critical workforce, potentially contributing to achieving higher recycling rates in developing economies based on the principles of a circular economy. 

However, they continue to be subjected to systemic marginalisation economically and socially and face various socio-economic vulnerabilities and remain at the receiving end when it comes to the ill impacts of informal waste collection and treatment. 

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Their jobs are not registered or protected by the state and, therefore, are typically excluded from the social security schemes and medical benefits of formal labour forces. At the same time, waste picking is usually risky and insecure; it occurs in hazardous or unhealthy environments. 

In India, the informal waste collection and sorting sector carry out the most labour-intensive and least rewarding job of recovering recyclable materials from unsegregated waste. 

While the wages and living conditions of different strata of informal waste workers differ greatly, a majority of them work and live in hazardous conditions. They typically lack access to sanitary and healthcare facilities. 

Furthermore, child labour is quite prevalent in this occupation and their life expectancy is low owing to continuous exposure to a hazardous environment. 

Sadly, waste pickers are not covered under any labour legislation in India. As a result, they do not benefit from social security and medical insurance schemes. Thus, there is a dire need to initiate policy formulation for their social and economic upliftment.

Poor living and working conditions

Despite their significant contribution to solid waste management, informal waste workers live very vulnerable lives. Their living quarters are frequently close to dumpsites and they work under unhygienic and unhealthy conditions. 

Often, they have no access to drinking water or public toilets. Waste pickers have to walk many a mile daily to pick up waste under the hot sun or in torrential rain. They carry heavy loads on their heads and backs or use bicycles and pushcarts to transport their collected waste. 

Almost all the waste pickers complained of fatigue (95 per cent) and headache (89 per cent) after returning from their work, reported a study published in the journal Human Factors in Healthcare. 

They do not have appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, gumboots and aprons. Due to the poor living and working conditions, malnutrition, anaemia and tuberculosis are common among them.

Occupational health hazards

Waste pickers are potentially exposed to a wide range of occupational hazardsCommunity waste bins and dumpsites are breeding grounds for various types of bacterial and viral diseases. As a result, waste pickers often face gastrointestinal ailments. 

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They have to segregate recyclables from mixed waste. At times, they handle sanitary waste, domestic hazardous waste and household biomedical waste with bare hands, which may cause various infections. 

Infections are also caused by their contact with human and animal excreta, bodily fluids and dead animals. They also get cut by sharp objects, ragged metal edges and broken glass in the mixed waste. 

A study published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology in 2017 on ragpickers residing near the Deonar dumpsite in Mumbai reported serious concerns regarding diseases and injuries among the waste picker population. 

Physical injuries were remarkably higher (75 per cent) among the waste pickers population compared to the population engaged in other occupations (average 17 per cent). The injuries were primarily because of lacerations caused by shards of glass, followed by muscle sprains. 

Frequent incidences of severe injuries and deaths among waste pickers as they are hit by vehicles or dozers while unloading waste carrier vehicles were also reported by field insights. 

Similarly, exposure to hazardous fumes at disposal sites resulted in respiratory problems. The prevalence of respiratory symptoms was significantly higher among waste pickers (28 per cent) compared to others (average 15 per cent).

Notably, the prevalence of dyspnoea (difficulty in breathing) and chronic cough was found to be higher among waste pickers. Field insights also reported that most waste pickers did not use protective clothing such as gumboots, gloves and masks, which increased their vulnerabilities and health risks. 

Waste pickers generally suffer from respiratory problems (19 per cent), eye problems (40 per cent), dermatological problems (22 per cent) and injuries (60.5 per cent), reported another study Prevalence of health problems of rag pickers due to various hazards at Lucknow city.

Additionally, the high prevalence of general health problems such as fever (78 per cent), cough and cold (83.5 per cent), diarrhoea and dysentery (40 per cent) were reported to be high.

Road accidents and falls (23 per cent), animal bites (16.5 per cent) and frostbite (16.5 per cent) are significantly higher among waste pickers.

The impact of occupational exposure on women waste pickers working near Pirana dumpsite concerning oxidative stress and genotoxicity was evaluated by a study published in a journal of Mutation Research: Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis (MRGTEM).

Genotoxicity is the ability of harmful substances to damage genetic information in cells. 

Women waste pickers suffer from chronic malnourishment and significantly elevated buccal cell anomalies, probably due to occupational exposure to toxic wastes in the dumpsite areas, the study reported. Long-term exposure to such wastes may lead to adverse outcomes, including cancer. 

A majority of waste pickers in Mumbai slum areas are suffering from mild depression and mild anxiety as common mental disorders, a survey-based study on Occupational and Environmental Health Hazards (Physical & Mental) Among Ragpickers in Mumbai Slums: A Cross-Sectional Study published in 2016 reported.  

Occupational hazards to the waste pickers


Source: Richa Singh /CSE

To address these issues, it is vital to “organise” this critical workforce and identify them as an integral part of the waste value chain. Waste pickers need to be recognised as an occupational community engaged in “green jobs” doing diverse activities related to the collection, sorting and segregation of waste.

The livelihoods, occupational health hazards and social security of waste picker communities need to be studied, ideally through participatory research

Notably, the major focus should be on the health conditions, occupational hazards, disease prevention and management and recourse to health care among waste picker communities need to be understood and documented.

This is needed for effective interventions that can be designed for improvements in their health and well-being.

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There are a variety of methods that could be employed to improve the working conditions of waste pickers and ensure a stable and dignified income source, such as promoting waste pickers alliances, cooperatives and social enterprises working for the rights of waste pickers and also with the city authorities.

In addition, stakeholders in government, the private sector or civil society could benefit from the services of waste pickers by mobilising this human force for the common goal of achieving source-separated waste, increasing the collection and treatment. 

Entrepreneurs and social enterprises can create a win-win condition for all through multi-stakeholder participation and establishing a bridge between informal and formal waste pickers and scrap dealers.

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