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'People are dying every day': the perilous job of sanitation workers

Anne Gulland
Three workers in Burkina Faso take a break after emptying a latrine - Basile Ouedraogo/Water Aid

Sanitation workers - people whose job brings them into direct contact with human waste - are risking their lives through accident and disease because of poor workplace protection, a report has warned.

The report highlights the plight of workers in some of the world’s poorest countries and is the most indepth study to date on a group of people who do vital but dangerous and dirty work, risking their lives every day. 

As well as facing physical dangers the workers are often the most marginalised in society, working irregular and informal hours and are often shunned by their communities.

The report, by organisations including the World Health Organization, Water Aid and the International Labour Organization, focuses on workers in nine countries - Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Haiti, India, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda. 

The job of sanitation worker includes cleaning toilets, emptying pits and septic tanks, cleaning sewers and manholes and operating pumping stations and treatment plants. 

Workers often come into direct contact with human waste, working with no equipment or protection which exposes them to a wide variety of health hazards and disease such as diarrhoea and cholera.  

Toxic gases, such as ammonia, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide in septic tanks and sewers can cause workers to lose consciousness or die. 

The report warns that few developing countries have health and safety guidelines to protect sanitation workers. There are no global statistics but it is thought in India one sanitation worker died every five days between 2017 and 2018. 

The report calls for the work to be mechanised so that workers do not have to touch human waste with their bare hands. 

It also includes for legislation to protect workers as well as mandatory training, protective equipment, regular health checks and insurance. 

The report includes interviews with workers themselves who describe the risks they have faced.

Wendgoundi Sawdogo, from Burkina Faso, describes how people throw syringes and bits of glass into the sewage pits which he has to empty manually. 

“Many of my colleagues have had broken fingers and broken feet from doing this job. Some have even died,” he told researchers. 

Tim Wainwright, chief executive of Water Aid, said sanitation workers carry out some of the most important roles in society and they must be better protected and recognised. 

“People are dying every day from both poor sanitation and dangerous working conditions - we cannot allow this to continue.”  

Maria Neira, director of public health and environment at WHO, said: “Sanitation workers make a key contribution to public health around the world – but in so doing, put their own health at risk. This is unacceptable.

"We must both improve working conditions for these people and strengthen the sanitation workforce, so we can meet global water and sanitation targets.”

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