Doing America's Dirty Work
Profiles of Grimy, Slimy, Difficult Jobs That Still Must Be Done
Tank cleaner Charles Reeves emerges from practice tank portal.
Workers dump a load of fish onto an indexing
belt moving towards the guillotine, the automatic de-heading machine (in foreground).
Photo courtesy Taku Smokeries
August 2002 -- Work, as defined by longshoreman and author Reg Theriault, is "picking up something and putting it down somewhere else because you have to." Dirty work, though, is more, says Morning Editon guest host Renee Montagne: Dirty work is "the kind that makes you sweat, gets you grimy, leaves you dog tired or emotionally wrung out." For six weeks starting Aug. 1, Morning Edition profiles these dirty jobs that somebody still has to do.
Aug. 1 - Oil tank cleaners. At the oil refineries around Houston, fields of gigantic, whie tanks hold unrefined crude oil. The bottoms of the tanks become caked with a slick, black sludge - more than two feet deep of it - and about every 10 years, it has to be thoroughly removed. It's hot, heavy and dangerous work, reports NPR's David Molpus.
Aug. 8 - Estate movers. Think of these San Diego County employees not so much as movers but as extreme house cleaners. When a house hasn't been cleaned for decades, it becomes "a four-walled landfill," reports NPR's Scott Horsley. And when its owners die or become incompetent and there's nobody else to clean out the property, the county crew moves in.
Aug. 15 - Corporate hatchetmen. In today's volatile economy, one type of job is booming: The firing specialist. While advising companies on how to lay off or fire employees might strike many as dirty work, NPR's David Molpus talks to one veteran who finds it "very fulfilling."
Aug. 22 - Fish processors. Gutting fish is cold, wet, slimy work - and it's work done not by machines but by people. Along the "slime line" at an Alaska fish processing plant, NPR's Elizabeth Arnold meets workers who are philosophical about their well-paid work: "What smell?" jokes one. "Another day, another dead fish."
Aug. 29 - Sewer inspectors. Underneath every major city, there's a network of tunnels and pipes directing human wastes and rainwater overflow to sanitation plants. And behind every sewer, there's at least one sewer inspector. From below Cincinnati, NPR's Jack Speer reports.
Sept. 2 - Industrial laundry workers. At least unionized laundry workers get plastic gloves, to protect them from the rotting food and bodily wastes in the tons of soiled bedsheets, towels and napkins generated by businesses such as hospitals and restaurants. Still, a 12-year veteran may earn only $13,000 a year. From a New York City laundry, NPR's David Molpus reports.
Listen to a Morning Edition report from Tokyo on the practice of hiring someone else to do your dirty work. March 25, 2002.