On an error in my New York Times essay: Where the “death every day” mistake originated.

The online version of my New York Times op-ed on the perils of waste work has been corrected and eliminates the error discussed below. I owe the readers, the Times, and all involved in waste handling occupations context for the original error that was corrected.

In my essay on waste work in the Saturday Times, I made an error obvious to sharp-eyed readers: 31 deaths of refuse and recyclable material collectors in 2016 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) does not equal one death every day. The error is inexcusable but has an explanation: my research covers waste-related work in several occupational categories ranging from janitorial services and laundry work to salvage yards, and in my notes I used in developing the essay I consulted BLS data for the larger category: “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services.” The number of deaths in that category (including the refuse and recycling workers, and also related categories including janitorial and cleaning work — excluding maids and housekeeping cleaners — and hazardous waste remediation, among other occupations such as landscape maintenance and pest extermination) in each of the years between 2013 and 2016 range between 360 and 458, a number that sadly meets the death-per-day rate as expressed in the published essay. Among the 2016 deaths within this category included the following subcategories: 16 in janitorial work and 67 in waste management and remediation services.

(Outside of that broader category, but pertinent to discussions of the hazards of waste work, BLS reported 64 deaths of building cleaning workers, 19 deaths of recyclable material merchant wholesalers, 8 deaths in laundry and drycleaning services, 8 deaths of first-line supervisors of housekeeping and janitorial workers, and 6 deaths in sewage treatment facilities in 2016.)

In my mind, I was thinking of all of these workers when approving the final wording of the essay. However, that thought remained only in my notes and my mind: I made no reference to the above data in the essay or sources I gave the Times (nor did I provide distinctions in the “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services” category between waste-related occupations, and, for example, landscaping services). Responsibility for this error is mine and mine alone.

I regret the error because it detracts from my point that we must recognize and protect the often-overlooked workers who handle wastes. In doing so, I myself obscured the deaths of the workers who perform the various waste-related tasks described in this letter, while presenting an assertion that did not match the data for refuse and recyclable material collectors. I write this letter to recognize those workers in the conversation that no doubt will be generated by my error.


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