Garbage collection is a routine occurrence, but few people know how dangerous it can be. Sharp flying objects, exploding electronics, and locals who chase after the garbage truck are all hazards that come with the job. On average, four waste collectors die each year while going on their rounds. Their workplace safety can be improved by better protective gear and new laws and protocols. But there''s also a lot that everyday people can do, to make the streets safer for those who pick up our trash. Let''s find out more in our Sunday special report.

Every day, as the sun sets in the west, there’s one group of people who start getting ready for their workday.

The romantic notes of “A Maiden’s Prayer” are symbolic of the garbage truck for the people of Taiwan. When the tune comes within earshot, locals drop what they’re doing and rush out the door with their household waste.

All along the street, people clutch bags of all sizes, containing everything from regular garbage and food waste, to recyclables such as bottles, cans, paper and even glass. Some bags have liquids in them and some emit foul smells. This waste, which would leave most people cringing, is an unavoidable companion throughout the workday for garbage workers.

Member of public

I think it’s quite hard work for them, so I’m very thankful toward them. If it weren’t for them, what would we do about the waste?

Workers first inspect the truck before heading out. Every time they go out collecting, they are out there for at least six hours, so it is imperative to make sure the truck is operating at its best.

When the garbage truck heads out, it is typically accompanied by a recycling truck. Each truck has a driver and an assistant.

Once the truck arrives at the pickup location, the assistant stands at the back of the truck and helps collect garbage from residents.

Standing on a raised platform at the back of the truck, the assistant holds on to a bar with one hand while taking garbage from people with the other hand. The assistant on the recycling truck must be like an octopus, balancing his weight while taking bags from people and tearing those bags open to separate recycling into different containers.

Crowds gather, and garbage trucks come up for roadside pickup. It’s an everyday occurrence, with safety risks that commonly go unseen.

When they are seen, they appear like this: garbage trucks catching fire and emitting smoke, or explosions of dust from the back of trucks. Workers are engaged in a game of survival, not knowing when the enemy will strike. How is it that household waste can cause such explosions?

Chiang Hsin-ming

Hualien City waste management director

For example, after the annual Ghost Festival – during which people will burn joss paper – we get people rushing to dump ash in the garbage trucks. At quick glance, the fire appears to be extinguished, but inside it may still be smoldering. When they dump it into the truck, it gets compressed with other waste in the truck’s rear loader and continues to smolder. That really can turn into a fire, which puts the vehicle and the workers at risk. When we encounter such a situation, we don’t waste any time discussing it. We just dump all the waste or recycling out onto an empty surface. This is to prevent the truck from catching fire, and the workers from getting injured.

Veteran waste management worker Tseng Chung-chih works mostly as a recycling collection assistant. He once had a life-and-death experience on the job.

Tseng Chung-chih

Waste Management worker

I recall thinking at the time that there was something strange going on. Smoke began pouring out of both sides of the rear loader, and there was a very strong smell. I pressed the emergency button and told the driver that it appeared there was a fire in the loader. The driver immediately got out, opened the loader and activated the ejection plate. As soon as he opened it and the ejection plate came forward there was a bang, and a fire started.

Metal compressed-air canisters, like gas cans for portable stoves and cans for hairspray and spray paint, should be taken to an open area and thoroughly emptied before being recycled. These items and others can explode and cause harm to garbage collectors.

Su Chia-yuan

Federation of Environmental Workers'' Unions chairman

If the compression plate comes down onto a steel nail, it will be shot straight out – the speed of that is faster than a bullet. There also may be glass shards. There is even the one thing that everyone jokes about: Sometimes kitchen waste is not properly separated and is put with regular garbage instead. As soon as the compressor comes down, it gets sprayed all over everyone’s faces – the faces of residents dropping off their garbage, and our