Ithaca, N.Y. — Five men in Ithaca worked to pick up about five tons of trash in sub-zero temperatures throughout the city early Wednesday morning.

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“They all go,” says Ray Benjamin, assistant superintendent of streets and facilities for Ithaca, adding that there was no thought to postponing trash collection because of the weather.

“There are no tough calls. The trash has to be picked up every day.”

Everyone locally has been feeling the deep freeze that plunged temperatures to as low as -10 degrees in some parts of Tompkins County late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. (By 9 a.m. Wednesday, temperatures had risen to 1 degree.)

Perhaps nobody, however, feels it as acutely as the city’s sanitation workers, who are tasked with the outdoors work regardless of the elements.

“If it was raining today with those temperatures, they’d still be out there,” Benjamin says.

Benjamin listed the names and positions of those who were hitting Ithaca’s streets by around 4 a.m. on Wednesday: Phil Davis, the working supervisor (since the death of Dan Spencer); Lloyd McKend, a driver; William Potter, another driver; Marvin Lansdow, a “thrower” (someone who picks up the trash); and Rick Bryant, another thrower.

In conditions like those this morning, Benjamin says, the throwers in particular are encouraged to get off the back of the trucks — where they usually ride — to “take frequent warmups” in the front carriage.

Frostbite is a prime concern. It can occur in 15 minutes or less at wind chill values of -18 degrees or lower, according to a Texas government fact-sheet. (Ithaca hit -12 degrees in some parts, without the windchill, IthacaVoice readers said.)

“We do have to worry, but they’ve been doing it for awhile now,” Benjamin says.

Benjamin says some cities can use a mechanical arm to do the outdoor lifting, but that this system wouldn’t work in Ithaca. “We still have throwers and that’s what most places have around here, but there are places where it’s all automated,” he says.

The workers get an allowance from the city to buy the clothes “they need for this type of work,” Benjamin says. Many wear pair of liner gloves inside the rubber gloves to avoid getting wet. But nothing can really protect the crews from the low temperatures, Benjamin says.

“It’s a cold, thankless job, but a lot of people recognize what they do,” Benjamin says. “They get gifts and gratuities around Christmas that comes in from the public and folks that appreciate the work that they do.”

Of course, sanitation crews aren’t the only ones who work in rough elements. For more, see this column from last year about the letter carriers, delivery-men, emergency responders and others who deserve our thanks on the coldest days.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.