Health at work: for garbage collectors, prevention rather than cure

The government's pension reform, adopted in the National Assembly after recourse to 49

Health at work: for garbage collectors, prevention rather than cure

The government's pension reform, adopted in the National Assembly after recourse to 49.3, on March 16, continues to mobilize against it, especially among garbage collectors. Tuesday March 21, the CGT Public Services of the City of Paris announced the renewal of the movement started a fortnight ago until Monday March 27. At the start of the week, nearly 10,000 tonnes of waste still littered the sidewalks of the capital, despite the requisitions of personnel ordered by the Paris prefecture.

Garbage collectors are indeed particularly exposed to the consequences of the substantial extension of the professional life provided for by the text, which raises the legal age of departure from 62 to 64 years. For these two additional years of work to materialize in practice, the question of occupational health must first be raised.

It is in particular a question of passing from a logic of reparation to a logic of prevention of the evils of work. The government's project certainly includes a hardship component, but the tracks presented do not go in this direction for the moment.

The sustainability of work in the long term indeed depends on the balance between the state of health of the workers and the exercise of their profession, which translates into two questions: first, the state of health of a worker is it compatible with his profession at a given time? Second, does the job performed influence the health status of the worker, and in what way?

Beyond the case of garbage collectors, to enable employees to meet the legal requirements for retirement, the manager will now have to, in collaboration with occupational health and prevention specialists, ask himself these questions throughout the employee's professional career, and this, from the beginning of it, regardless of the employee's age.

Our study shows that a loader, when the collection round is made with two people in the back of the truck, collects the waste for an average duration of 401 minutes - almost 7 hours -, benefits from a break time of 33 minutes, picks up 4.7 t of waste, takes 12,238 steps and travels a total of 44.6 km in the back of the truck.

Cardiac cost, or the difference between heart rate at work and heart rate at rest, is 28.8 beats per minute. However, the upper threshold that characterizes excessive physical strain is 30 beats.

It is easy to understand that physical wear and tear is very high in this extremely restrictive profession, which raises the question of the manager's responsibility in terms of human resources and health at work.

This also raises the question of the responsibility of the principals, who are often municipalities or communities of municipalities for waste collection. The responsibility is all the stronger when the manager or the principal, under pressure from the competition, considers the practice of mono-ripage, that is to say the assignment of a single ripeur per truck.

The job of a scraper is probably one of the most demanding jobs, because it combines many of the contemporary difficulties of work: physical and time constraints, interactions with users, complexity of chains of responsibility in terms of quality of life at work ( QVT), etc.

However, doctoral work carried out in 2019, based on the study of several waste collection companies, showed that some employers had already developed responses that allowed employees to exercise their profession until retirement age in being much less worn. We had identified two human resource management (HRM) models that provide two different answers to a single question: how long should/can an employee stay in a demanding job?

In the first company studied, the employer believed that the employee should be able to practice his profession "for life", and did everything possible to allow him to do so, adapting his daily HRM to his state of health. In practice, this attitude resulted in the introduction of leeway in two major areas.

In the second company, the employer considered, on the contrary, that a cross-ripeur should exercise his trade for as short a time as possible. Imagining that job instability could guarantee employment stability, the managers had drawn up a flexicurity project internally, even at the scale of the territory and between employers.

Thus, recruitment deliberately favored candidates who were overqualified for the trade of cross-country skier but who were motivated by a career in the civil service. The employer explained to them as soon as they were hired that the profession of cross-dresser could only be a stage in their career, a means but not an end.

By recruiting them, he gave them access to the civil service competitions, which he then strongly encouraged them to pass by providing them with significant means - in time and money - so that they could prepare for and pass them. Unfortunately, we could not have access to the results of this policy, the project starting during our study.

Without always being as constraining as that of the crossers, all professional activities have an impact on health when it is considered on the physical and psychological levels. At a time when we observe, in many professions, an increase in cases of burn-out and suicides, as well as an increase in questions about work and its meaning, the debates on the age of departure in retirement bring to the fore the questions about the duration during which one can envisage practicing a profession. Our work with "first on duty", such as the ripeurs, can be a source of inspiration.

To conclude, we can say that trying to make aging employees work without asking the question of the sustainability of work and without putting HRM at the service of this question exposes the risk of exclusion, sick leave, unemployment, disability or even death: it is costly for individuals and for society. Can a reform be paid such a price?

* Jean-Yves Juban is professor of management sciences at the University of Grenoble Alpes (UGA) and Isabelle Salmon is a collaborating occupational physician, associate researcher at Cerag, at the University of Grenoble Alpes (UGA)