‘The most important rule of refuse collection? Don’t get trapped in the crush zone!” Waste services supervisor Shaun Ross doesn’t hold back as he prepares me for a day on the bins.
By the end of his session, I’m rather scared. I thought I’d just be emptying a bit of rubbish. I don’t want to get whalloped in the face by a wheelie bin that falls from the side of a truck and then sheds its load all over me.
But being a binman is harder than you think. “So you’d better pay attention,” says Shaun. Yes, boss.
He’s nothing if not blunt about the importance of safety: “I have been here for 35 years,” he says. “It is an industry where you can stay and make your career, or it is an industry that can put you in hospital.”
Shaun teaches binmen how to do the job safely for Dacorum Borough Council and investigates any on-the-job accidents that do occur.
I met him at Hemel Hempstead’s Cupid Green Depot – where recycled rubbish from across the borough is stored before it can be taken away and reused.
One of my first tasks was to learn how to take part in one of the weekly rounds to collect the Dacorum public’s recycled rubbish.
First, it has to be separated into three different compartments – one for glass, another for paper, and a third for plastics, tins and cans.
The glass just gets lobbed into a compartment on the side of the lorry from a box. Nice and easy.
But the other two have to be put in two separate wheelie bins that clip onto latches at the side of the rubbish truck. The bins are then lifted to the top of the truck where their contents get thrown inside, along with the glass.
Mr Ross said: “As soon as the bins hook onto the lorry, the area in front of them becomes a crush zone. Going in that area becomes a no-no.
“If they come off, it will seriously hurt you if you get hit. You are in an industry where it’s dangerous.
“You can be talking to your mate about football or what happened the night before, when all of a sudden you are hit by a bin full of rubbish.
“If they fill the glass up too much, it can come out of the box after being lifted up, and then hit you on the head.”
If anyone walks into the crush zone while the bins are attached to the lorry, all work must stop immediately.
Driver Simon Finch says accidents are prevented by the teamwork between himself and the person loading rubbish onto his truck.
He said: “I’ve been doing this for three years. There are good days and bad days, with the weather and all that, but on the whole, it’s a good job.
“You have got to keep your wits about you. You have got members of the public who don’t understand coming in during a stroll or walk – but luckily we have got two sets of eyes.”
Wheelie bins have a lifespan of up to 25 years – but the latch that hooks them onto the side of the truck can break with wear and tear.
Shaun said: “I have had cases where the wheelie-bin has been torn in half – and they are making the bins thinner now to cut down on the costs.
“Drivers and loaders have to watch out for stretch-marks on the side of bin lids to make sure they never break.”
He said that on average he only investigates one case a year where someone has been injured during a bin collection round.
But bins falling off lorries and hitting cars is a more common occurrence that Mr Ross has to deal with – that happens two or three times a year.
My second task during training – dealing with grey bins for non-recyclable rubbish – is a doddle compared to the rounds where recycled rubbish is collected.
Bins can still break, but as they don’t get lifted as high into the air, you needn’t worry so much about getting squashed by them when they fall.
But after you’ve hooked them onto the back of the truck, do step aside before their rubbish is flipped inside – or they’ll whack you in the face.
Well, I’ve tried it – and I survived.
And while I’m not considering a career change, my day at the sharp end has certainly given me a greater appreciation of the crews who work to take away our crud.
Each rubbish truck in Dacorum is capable of holding about 11.5 tonnes of rubbish and is sent on two collection rounds every weekday.
Non-recyclable waste is taken to landfill, where it is buried – but appropriate places for it to go are getting fewer and fewer across the UK.
In Dacorum 48 per cent of all the rubbish collected by binmen is recyclable.