Sanitation worker


A sanitation worker (or sanitary worker) is a person responsible for cleaning, maintaining, operating, or emptying the equipment or technology at any step of the sanitation chain.[1]: 2  This is the definition used in the narrower sense within the WASH sector. More broadly speaking, sanitation workers may also be involved in cleaning streets, parks, public spaces, sewers, stormwater drains, and public toilets.[2] Another definition is: "The moment an individual’s waste is outsourced to another, it becomes sanitation work."[3]: 4  Some organizations use the term specifically for municipal solid waste collectors, whereas others exclude the workers involved in management of solid waste (rubbish, trash) sector from its definition.

Sanitation workers carrying out manual pit emptying (in Durban, South Africa) with personal protective equipment

Those workers who maintain and empty on-site sanitation systems (e.g. pit latrines, septic tanks) contribute to functional fecal sludge management systems. Without sanitation workers, the Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6.2 ("safely managed sanitation for all") cannot be achieved.[4] It is important to safeguard the dignity and health of sanitation workers.

Sanitation work can be grouped into formal employment and informal employment. Sanitation workers face many challenges. These relate to occupational safety and health (diseases related to contact with the excreta; injuries; the dangers of working in confined spaces, legal and institutional issues, as well as social and financial challenges. One of the main issues is the social stigma attached to sanitation work.


A report by World Bank, International Labour Organization, WaterAid and WHO from 2019 defines "sanitation workers" to include toilet cleaners and caretakers in domestic, public, and institutional settings; those who empty pits from pit latrines and vaults of septic tanks and other fecal sludge handlers; those who clean sewers and manholes; and those who work at sewage treatment plants and fecal sludge treatment plants and disposal sites.[1]: 2 

In the United States however, some organizations use the term exclusively for municipal solid waste collectors.[5][6] A famous example of "sanitation worker" referring to waste collectors is the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968, supported by Martin Luther King Jr., which brought together both waste collectors and sewerage maintenance workers.[7]

Another definition is: "The moment an individual’s waste is outsourced to another, it becomes sanitation work."[3]: 4 

Since there are various definitions of sanitation, it is not surprising that there are various definitions of "sanitation worker".[3]: 4 

Related termsEdit

More generally, a waste collector (also bin man, garbage collector, etc.) deals with municipal solid waste.

Types of sanitation workEdit

Formal employmentEdit

Types of work and occupations along the sanitation chain (based on [1]: 3  but with further additions)
Toilet/containment Emptying Conveyance Treatment End use/Disposal
  • Manual disposal
  • Mechanical disposal

Informal employmentEdit

Sanitation workers provide a critical public service, essential for our daily lives and the environment. Yet their working conditions expose them to the worst consequences of poor sanitation such as debilitating infections, injuries, social stigma and even death every day.[9]

In some countries, human excreta is still collected from certain types of toilet (such as bucket toilets and pit latrines) without mechanical equipment and without personal protective equipment. These workers are "scooping out feces from ‘dry’ latrines and overflowing pits".[10] They are usually working in the informal labour sector and are commonly referred to as "informal sanitation workers". They have weak legal protection results from working informally and do note follow occupational health and safety standards.[1]: 7 


A short video shedding light on the unsafe and undignified working conditions of many sanitation workers in India (2018)
Sanitation workers carrying out unsafe manual pit emptying of a pit latrine in Korogocho slums in Kenya

The challenges faced by sanitation workers can be categorized as follows: occupational safety and health, legal and institutional issues, financial insecurity, and social issues.[1]: 7 

Sanitation workers are at, an increased risk of becoming ill from waterborne diseases. To reduce this risk and protect against illness, such as diarrhea, safety measures should be put in place for workers and employers.

Occupational safety and healthEdit

Issues include:

  • Diseases related to contact with the excreta[11]
  • Injuries related to the physical effort of extracting and transporting the waste, including falls from height[12]
  • Injuries related to cuts from non-fecal waste (e.g. glass or needles) disposed of down the toilet
  • The dangers of working in confined spaces,[13] including lack of oxygen


Sanitation workers are at an increased risk of becoming ill from waterborne diseases.[14] To reduce this risk and protect against illness, such as diarrhea, measures have been proposed for occupational health: Basic hygiene practices for workers (handwashing etc.); sanitation workers should be provided with proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and be trained on how to use it (i.e. goggles, face mask, overalls, gloves, boots); vaccinations (e.g. tetanus, polio, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations.[14] One specific disease that concerns workers in sewers is Leptospirosis, spread through contact with rat urine.[15]

Technology must match the needs of the workers. The most important exposure point is during the emptying of container based facilities were pathogen concentrations in the waste are the highest. Workers are more likely to wear protective gear if they are given a choice of suitable clothing.[16]

Legal and institutionalEdit

In many developing countries, sanitation workers often have to work with weak legal protection, missing or weak standard operating procedures, weak law enforcement and few policies protecting their rights and health.[1]: x 

The safety of sanitation workers is influenced by:[17]: 47 

  • Design and construction of the toilet or other piece of sanitation infrastructure
  • Pressure by the customer
  • Pressure by the employer
  • Materials and equipment available to do the job

Social and financial challengesEdit

In developing countries, low-grade, unskilled sanitation workers often face social stigma and discrimination.[1]: 10  This is especially true when sanitation is linked to a caste-based structure and often allocated to castes perceived to be lower in the caste hierarchy, such as in India and Bangladesh. This stigma can result in intergenerational discrimination, where children of sanitation workers often struggle to escape the vicious cycle of limited opportunities and sanitation work.[1]: 10 

There can be implicit or explicit discrimination, which hinders workers’ social inclusion, their opportunities to shift careers, and social mobility. Furthermore, alcoholism and drug addiction to evade the working conditions are common among some sanitation workers in developing countries.[1]: 10 

Social stigmaEdit

Sanitation workers, particularly those in information employment who manually empty septic tanks and pit latrines, are often subjected to social stigma for their work.[18]


In European history the terms "nightsoil collectors" or "nightmen" and gong farmers were used. The current term for the safe collection of human excreta is fecal sludge management. Towns with sanitation systems based on pail closets (bucket toilets in outhouses) relied on frequent emptying, performed by workers driving "honeywagons", a precursor to the vacuum truck now used to pump out septage from septic tanks. The municipal emptying of pail toilets continued in Australia into the second half of the twentieth century; these were known as dunnies and the workers were dunnymen.

Society and cultureEdit


Sanitation Workers typically earn an average monthly salary of $2,226 in the United States, although this figure can vary widely between states. As on 2022, the salary in New York could range between $47,371 and $89,339.[19] For instance, the state of New York provides total annual wages of up to $91,336 for Sanitation Workers after 20 years of service.[20] In 2020, some sanitation workers in New York City earned up to $300,000 as a result of shortage in staff and boosted pay due to snowstorms.[21]

Sanitation Worker salaries in Zambia range from 870 ZMK($41.92) per month as their minimum salary to 2,480 ZMK($123.76) per month as maximum salary.[22]

Country examplesEdit


In Haiti, sanitation workers in the informal sector are called bayakou, which comes from Haitian Creole.[23][24] The capital Port-au-Prince is one of the largest cities in the world without a sewer system.[25]


Sanitation workers in Pondicherry, India

In India the term manual scavengers is used historically for a subsection of sanitation workers. The official definition in Indian law is "manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit".[26] The practice has officially been banned since 1993 but still continues.

Sanitation workers in India who clean streets may also be called "street sweepers".

It has been stated that sanitation workers in India are "overwhelmingly Dalits, and are in fact from ‘scavenging castes’".[27] The democracy of India is associated with caste system, and programs like Swachh Bharat fight against caste-based discrimination in India.[28]

“Sanitation workers” can be used as a translation for the Hindi word "safai karamcharis". This includes "manual scavengers", but also people who work as sweepers, are employed to clean streets and open spaces, collect solid waste, and clean open drains and public toilets.[29] Another commonly used term is "Pourakarmikas" which includes manual scavengers, sewer workers, sanitation workers.[30]

An estimate in 2018 put the number of "sanitation workers" in India at 5 million, and 50% of them being women.[31]


In Zambia, organisations such as the SNV Netherlands Development Organisation under their WASH SDG Programme and the Lusaka Water and Sanitation Company (LWSC) under a project known as the Lusaka Sanitation Programme (LSP) supported by international organisations including the German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH, have been working on projects to "legalise and make sanitation workers more visible and create the recognition and respect that they so rightfully deserve."[4]

Lusaka is one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa and the majority of the population live in informal, peri-urban settlements. Various organisations in Lusaka attempt to make sanitation workers more visible and create more recognition and respect for them. They also aim to design projects and processes that improve their working environment and conditions, and help to provide the required investments to support their enterprises.[32]

Pit latrine emptiers empty the toilet pits and septic tanks in communities. They enter inspection holes and sewers to fix or unblock them and then transport the fecal waste to treatment plants, while maintaining the sanitation facilities. If septic tanks and pit latrines are not emptied regularly, waste flows into the groundwater, contaminating the environment and surrounding water supplies. The response from society towards pit emptiers is "stigmatized, lowly, and invalid" despite the importance of the work that they do.[33]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i World Bank, ILO, WaterAid, and WHO (2019). Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment. World Bank, Washington, DC.
  2. ^ ABHINAV AKHILESH, MEERA MEHTA, ZARA JUNEJA (10 April 2020). "How can we support sanitation workers during COVID-19?". India Development Review (IDR). Retrieved 23 April 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ a b c PRIA (2019): Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers in India: Insights from a Participatory Research Conducted in Three Cities of India. Participatory Research in Asia, New Delhi, India
  4. ^ a b c Sperandeo, L., Srinivasan, S. (2020). The Heroes behind Sanitation - An insight into faecal sludge management workers in Zambia. BORDA, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Bonn, Germany
  5. ^ "Waste360". Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  6. ^ Benelli, Natalie (2011). "Sweeping the Streets of the Neoliberal City: Racial and Class Divisions among New York City's Sanitation Workers". Journal of Workplace Rights. 16 (3–4): 453–474. doi:10.2190/WR.16.3-4.l.
  7. ^ "MEMPHIS SANITATION WORKERS STRIKE!". Memphis Public Library. 12 February 1968. Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  8. ^ Ramamoorthy, R., Pandey, K. D., Rajakuma, D. S., Ramasamy, N., Sharma, R. (2018). Desludging Operators in Tiruchirappalli: An Overview. Indian Institute for Human Settlements, India
  9. ^ "Health, safety and dignity of sanitation workers | WASH Matters". Retrieved 2020-09-29.
  10. ^ Ray, I., Prasad, CS S. (2018). Where there are no Sewers - Photoessays on Sanitation Work in Urban India. Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) secretariat at GIZ, Eschborn, Germany
  11. ^ HSE (2011) Working with sewage - The health hazards: A guide for employers, Health and Safety Executive UK.
  12. ^ Labour Department (2006) Safety Guide for Work in Manholes Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the Labour Department, Hong Kong Government
  13. ^ HSE (2013). Confined spaces - A brief guide to working safely, Health and Safety Executive UK.
  14. ^ a b Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (29 September 2020). "Guidance for Controlling Potential Risks to Workers Exposed" – via Department of Health and Human Services. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ HSE (n.d.) Leptospirosis (Weil’s Disease and Hardjo). Health and Safety Executive UK.
  16. ^ SciDev.Net. "Dangers, health risks faced by sanitation workers exposed". SciDev.Net. Retrieved 2020-09-29.
  17. ^ Eales, K., Blackett, I. (2019). FSM5 - Thematic Papers. Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA), Bremen, Germany
  18. ^ "Dirty Job Shows Why Cholera Still Kills in Haiti". VOA. 28 December 2016. Retrieved 2017-07-30.
  19. ^ "NYC Sanitation Exam". Law Enforcement Service Systems Inc. &
  20. ^ "12 Things New Yorkers Should Know About Their Garbage | CBCNY". 2014-05-21. Retrieved 2020-07-02.
  21. ^ Duffy, Kate (13 December 2021). "Some sanitation workers in NYC earned nearly $300,000 last year as staff shortages and snowstorms boosted overtime pay". Business Insider.
  22. ^ "Sanitation Worker Average Salary in Zambia 2020 - The Complete Guide". Retrieved 2020-09-29.
  23. ^ Curnutte, Mark (2011). A Promise in Haiti: A Reporter's Notes on Families and Daily Lives. Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press. p. 81. ISBN 9780826517852.
  24. ^ Vilsaint, Féquière; Berret, Jean-Evens (2005). English Haitian Creole Dictionary (2nd ed.). Coconut Creek, Florida: Educa Vision Inc. p. 149. ISBN 9781584322139.
  25. ^ Knox, Richard (13 April 2012). "Port-Au-Prince: A City Of Millions, With No Sewer System". NPR. Retrieved 2017-07-30.
  26. ^ The Employment Of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Govt. of India.
  27. ^ "Treat Sanitation Workers Like Health Workers, Pay Them At Least Rs 20,000 Per Month". The Wire. 22 April 2020. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  28. ^ Akhilesh, Pragya (18 January 2022). "A Failed Attempt to Create an Equally Sanitary India". The Wire.
  29. ^ Walters, Vicky (2019-01-02). "Parenting from the 'Polluted' Margins: Stigma, Education and Social (Im)Mobility for the Children of India's Out-Casted Sanitation Workers". South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 42 (1): 51–68. doi:10.1080/00856401.2019.1556377. ISSN 0085-6401. S2CID 150965777.
  30. ^ SUKANYA RANGAMANI, KANNAMEDI BHEEMAPPA OBALESHA, RAKHAL GAITONDE (2015). "Health issues of sanitation workers in a town in Karnataka: Findings from a lay health-monitoring study (Short Report)" (PDF). The National Medical Journal of India. 28 (2): 70.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  31. ^ "Sanitation Worker Project Animation (video)". Dalberg Global Development Advisors. 3 September 2018. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  32. ^ Srinivasan, Shobana; Sperandeo, Lior (29 September 2020). "The Heroes behind Sanitation-An insight into faecal sludge management workers in Zambia" (PDF) – via BORDA. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  33. ^ Sperandeo, Lior (2020-07-09). "Giving a shit | Sanitation and Hygiene in Lusaka Zambia". Lior Sperandeo. Retrieved 2020-09-29.

External linksEdit

  • Sanitation Workers in India - a 5-month long study of sanitation workers across India carried out in 2017