Cullman County Courthouse

American flags are seen at the Cullman County Courthouse.

It may be next summer (or later) before customers begin seeing the changes, but the Cullman County Sanitation Department is planning a fundamental shift in the way it collects garbage; one that officials hope will streamline the department’s efficiency while saving money on costly workman’s compensation insurance in the long run. 

The Cullman County Commission approved a $4.9 million deal this week to phase out the bulk of the sanitation department’s roadside pickup truck fleet with the purchase of 11 automated-lift trucks, along with approximately 23,000 new 95-gallon home trash receptacles designed to work with the automated loaders. 

The deal also includes a pair of front-loader dumpster trucks. 

Currently, most county sanitation customers are served by truck that run a three-person crew: one driver, and two riders who physically retrieve and dump trash from residents’ garbage bins into the truck. 

The new automated system, which features a boom arm on the right side of the truck and can do that same job without human assistance, requires only a driver for each truck, and no attending workers riding at the back. 

Commissioners said Tuesday the move to an automated system will eventually reduce the size of the 50-person sanitation department’s payroll, but stressed that no currently-employed worker would lose his or her job because of the change. 

Rather, they said, the department simply will not fill future vacant job vacancies, whether they arise from retirement, transfer, or the voluntary ending of employment. 

The $4.9 million deal, which awarded the truck and receptacle purchases to the nationwide Sourcewell buying cooperative via the Alabama State bid list, is a budgeted expenditure for the county for fiscal year 2020. 

The shift to automation is expected to effectively replace all ride-behind sanitation truck services for all 27,000 customer accounts.

County attorney Chad Floyd said eliminating the need for workers to ride along on the exterior of sanitation vehicles will save the county significantly on workman’s compensation costs, as well as drastically diminish the safety concerns that attend one of Cullman County’s most high-risk job positions. 

“Workers’ compensation [premiums] for a position that involves such repeated physical labor all day long, and that requires riding on the open back of truck on a highway, where there are inherent safety risks, will certainly be reduced,” said Floyd. “It’s already hard for the sanitation department to find and retain collectors in that role. It’s hard to hire and keep people who are willing to ride on the back of the truck, and to assume all the difficulties that come with filling that position.”

The county’s decision to pursue automated garbage pickup comes more than three years after one of the department’s workers, Harold “Jamie” Dickey, was killed in a collision as he rode on the back of a county garbage truck that was traveling on U.S. Highway 231 while making its collection rounds near Arab. 

Another driver (who was uninjured in the accident) collided from behind with the truck on which Dickey was riding, throwing him from the truck and inflicting fatal injuries. 

The cost for the new residential garbage receptacles required to make the automated system work is being absorbed by the county as part of the deal, and no county sanitation customer will have to pay any one-time fee for the new containers. 

Officials anticipate recovering approximately $1 million of the purchase cost for the new vehicles and equipment by selling the old, outgoing vehicles as surplus property.

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 145.

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