Calling tanks hell, septic crews share near-death accounts
Michael Shaw knows that cesspool crews flirt with danger and death every time they descend the ladder into the deep and dark belly of septic tanks. And as he reflected on last week’s tragic deaths of three cesspool labourers, presumably from...
Michael Shaw knows that cesspool crews flirt with danger and death every time they descend the ladder into the deep and dark belly of septic tanks.
And as he reflected on last week’s tragic deaths of three cesspool labourers, presumably from noxious fumes at the Moneague College in St Ann, he recounted almost passing out from the overwhelmingly suffocating mix of gases. Shaw said he struggled to clamber out to safety, driven by the desperate gasp for survival.
“We are doing this job for years and some of us are not fully equipped to do it the right and proper way. Sometimes we just try to make a quick money, so we just go and do a thing because we are used to it,” Shaw told The Gleaner on Friday, while expressing condolences to the families of the deceased.
The dangers inherent in one of the dirtiest jobs on Earth have largely evaded national spotlight before the deaths of Joslyn Henry, Kirk Kerr, and Beresford Gordon, but their passing has turned scrutiny on a highly unregulated industry with limited, if any, safety provisions. There appears to be a high level of unawareness of the toxic work conditions among many unskilled and untrained labourers, who are drawn from some of Jamaica’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Shaw is a veteran in the cleaning of septic tanks and pits and has been hauling away the sludge to a dump site in Greenwich Town, Kingston, for more than 40 years.
He said that sewage haulage crews do not receive any formal training, depending primarily on a regimen of on-the-job learning that is a mix of hits and near misses. Industry interests have been willing to cut corners and skimp on safety to make a quick buck, said Shaw. While not pronouncing on culpability, he believes that the Moneague incident will be a wake-up call for both workers and managers about the need to enforce equipment compliance.
“When we get septic tank or pit to clean, the first thing we have to do is examine the pit and check how strong the acid fume is before entering, because there are times when the acid fumes are so strong that you will not survive down there,” he stated.
Shaw, who also operates one of the haulage trucks, believes that septic tanks pose greater danger than sewage pits because they do not have a soakaway. Therefore, he said they function like a grease trap in which caustic soda is poured to soften the waste before the trucks are able to extract it.
But even after pumping out the waste, said Shaw, sewage haulage crewmen, armed with shovels, often descend into the dark core of the tank to dislodge the residue.
“Some companies provide protective clothing and safety equipment for us to use, but some don’t, but we have been doing this so long that we don’t even think about those things anymore; we just try to get the job done as fast as we can,” Shaw said.
He further explained: “What we usually do before going into these big septic tanks is find out first of all how long ago the acid was put in there, and then we smell for the strength of the fumes, and if it smell strong, we lef’ it open for a day or two and let some of the fumes evaporate before we go in.”
Irvin Young, who has been cleaning septic pits for more than 30 years, said that he is supplied with protective clothing but has not been given any oxygenated breathing apparatus, which he believes would significantly mitigate the threat of asphyxiation.
“It hard to breathe down there, but you can’t just draw a septic tank and go in there right away. You have to let it breeze out for some time or the acid fumes will kill you,” he said.
Young disclosed that he and other workers passed out from the fumes many times, but were revived in time.
Kenneth Rose, who has been cleaning septic tanks for decades, revealed that he prays every time before taking the plunge.
“You haffi put God in front of you when you down there. You have to be strong, because a hell you deh, but we used to it,” he said.