CHENNAI: Used masks thrown into the garbage bins has left sanitary workers in-charge of segregating domestic waste anxious. With the rest of the state gearing up for a lockdown starting from Tuesday in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, about 17,000 odd sanitary workers in the city are now worried about their safety.
“A large number of city residents are using masks now and the used ones are thrown out, sometimes wrapped in paper bags or covers. Many of us come into contact with them knowingly or unknowingly,” said Iqbal (name changed),a contract sanitary worker from Manali.
According to a WHO advisory, masks should be removed from behind without touching the front portion and should immediately be discarded in a ‘closed bin’ following which hands should be cleaned. When asked if Iqbal knew how to safely dispose of his own mask and the ones dumped in the waste, he said he was not aware of any particular procedure. The masks, along with the other waste, are usually taken away in open bins in their tricycles.
Although many people now stay at home due to the curfew, the number of people segregating the sanitary waste or any waste for that matter, has not increased so far, he added.
While sanitary workers of some zones were seen working with masks and gloves, workers were found collecting waste without masks and gloves in Tondiarpet and Egmore on Tuesday. Sanitary workers of Zone 15 (Sholinganallur) said that apart from distributing gloves and masks, a meeting was held where they were briefed by officials as to what procedures need to be followed to stay safe during these times.
“They told us to wash our hands at the division offices and maintain one-metre distance while collecting waste. Even when signing the attendance, no two people use the same pen,” said Lakshmi K, of zone 15.
However, a large number of them fail to wash hands while on duty if there is unavailability of public taps and wait till they get to office, said P Srinivasalu, general secretary of the Red Flag Union of conservancy workers under the city corporation.
‘Exempt old and high-risk sanitary workers from duty’
While sanitary workers are ready to step up to the crisis and serve the city as they have always done, those with acute respiratory trouble and those above 50 should be exempted from work while being remunerated, said Srinivasalu.
There are around 580 people who are around 60 years old, due for retirement, still in the workforce.
“We have once spoken to corporation officials about but we realise that they are busy with the Corona crisis. So, we want to give them time before approaching them again,” he said.
When contacted, a senior official of the city corporation said that 100 buses have been arranged to transport sanitary workers to their places of work from important points in their zones from Wednesday.
“While there have not been discussions to exempt senior workers right now, we will ensure that they are given work that is easy to do and is not risky,” the official said.