Waste Management – Health Hazards Faced by Waste Workers in India

Waste management in developing countries is seen as an “if all else fails” option, and with good reason: the risks to health caused by this job are astronomical. Waste is scarcely segregated, and the recyclable waste is mixed with organic, medical, and non-recyclable waste are left to rot by the roadsides which involves physical handling of waste by workers. Compared to their counterparts in developed countries, who handle closed bins and sealed bags, the waste workers in developing countries have significantly higher health risks.

Hazardous Waste

Municipal Solid Waste Workers (MSWWs) are exposed to dangerous, often toxic, waste every day. Bioaerosols, medical waste, sanitary waste and carelessly disposed e-waste are only some of the toxic wastes they are exposed to on a regular basis.

  • Bioaerosols are formed by the decay of organic waste. They contain several agents capable of inducing inflammation in the airways, including endotoxins, volatile organic compounds and fungi. Endotoxins cause more inflammation than any other component of bio-aerosols. This inflammation is non-allergic, but long lasting and causes permanent respiratory problems.
  • Medical waste which are health hazards like used syringes, expired medicines, and glass bottles that once contained medicines are thrown along with regular waste.
  • Exposure to toxic substances like cadmium and chromium from e-waste are dangerous and can cause serious health problems. Lack of proper awareness and prohibitive cost of healthcare is a major disadvantage for the waste workers.
  • Garbage fires due to burning of garbage, either deliberately or by anaerobic decay of organic matter, which produce methane that catches fire. This in turn causes the release of several harmful gases, and the ash left behind is not only toxic but often carcinogenic as well. Waste workers sometimes need to sort through this ash to get the recyclables, exposing them to harmful compounds that are left behind post-incineration.

Types of health hazards faced by MSWWs

  • Carrying loads over long distances may cause musculoskeletal problems.
  • Several studies conducted show that waste workers have a reduced lung capacity as compared to people who do not work with waste.
  • Waste may be contaminated with fecal material. This may include biological pathogens such as parasites and bacteria related to the gastrointestinal tract. This can be passed from hands to the mouth, causing diseases of the stomach and intestines.
  • Hospital waste is hazardous in terms of biological and chemical contamination including exposure to used syringes, dressings, discarded medicines and sometimes blood and organs as well. They are exposed to infections and disease-causing bacteria.
  • Sharp objects can cause cuts which, in turn, may lead to tetanus or other infections.
  • Waste provides an ideal habitat for disease carriers including flies, insects and rats.
  • Waste in Bangalore is left out in the open, attracting stray animals. Waste workers often risk getting bitten causing rabies as well.
  • Garbage fires that break out have the associated risk of burns and toxic smoke inhalation
  • Often MSWWs need to remove animal carcasses and human waste from bins they collect waste from. As many cannot afford proper healthcare, diseases contracted from the carcasses and fecal matter go untreated.
  • While entering manholes, many workers ensure that they are drunk so that they do not have to experience the bad smell. This causes other health complications, like their body balance being adversely affected as they are under the influence of alcohol.
  • The psycho-mental stress of the job leads to depression and other mental health conditions

Social Challenges Faced by MSWWs

As of 2011, there were 15000 informal waste-pickers in Bangalore and 20000 formal, BBMP employed waste pickers. The total number of people who depend on this for a living is extremely high, and the health risks thus cannot be ignored. The implied health risks affect not only the workers themselves, but also their families. Due to low wages, they cannot afford proper health care. Furthermore, their unsanitary living conditions are conducive to infections due to lack of awareness. In several cases, waste workers are employed under labour unions, and part of their money, is invested in their provident fund, which cannot be accessed until their retirement.


Health hazards caused by exposure to waste can be prevented by the following simple actions:

  1. Use of protective suits, gloves, rubber boots, and masks to cover their nose and mouth are prerequisites for the work that the waste pickers do. The municipality and the citizens of Bangalore can ensure the safety of the pourakarmikas by sponsoring and procuring the same.
  2. Development of low-cost protective gear is also essential. This will allow the municipal corporation to be able to procure enough protective gear for the MSWWs. Companies can donate a part of their CSR funds for providing protective suits.
  3. Providing pourakarmikas with clean restroom and basic drinking water facilities is important.
  4. Spreading awareness about programs like Yashaswini health scheme among them will inevitably allow more of them to get medical help at a lower cost.

In Bangalore for example, there has been a significant increase in waste production. The narrow roads and crumbling footpaths make it increasingly difficult for waste collection to take place properly as the streets are clogged by cars and it is nearly impossible for the garbage trucks to reach dumping points. Bangalore produces over 5000 metric tons of mostly unsegregated waste a day, and this will keep increasing in the coming years. While the waste production of a city increases, it is essential that the collection of waste takes place more efficiently.

Written By- Aarushi Tiwari


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Volume-6, Issue-1, Dec-Feb 2016/17

Received:17 Oct 2016 Revised:31 Jan 2017 Accepted:3 Feb 2017



Priyanka V. Patil and R. K. Kamble
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