News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

Caltrans workers report lack of training and equipment for handling syringes, human waste

David McNew/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 5MB

The union that represents Caltrans workers have filed a grievance with the department. 

The International Union of Operating Engineers (I.U.O.E.) says their members are assigned potentially dangerous work that lies outside their job description. Namely, the clean up of former homeless encampments on Caltrans property. 

The hazards of cleaning up

"The ground is littered with debris, needles, gallons of human waste– there's used feminine products lying the ground," said Steve Crouch, director of Public Employees for I.U.O.E. "It's as if you took a portable toilet and turned it upside-down, and then said, 'OK guys, now you've got to go in there and clean this up.'"

Croucher said the dangers don't end there. "Sometimes, when the Caltrans workers go to clean out the camps, they get attacked by dogs." 

Caltrans employees have taken on more clean-up duties as municipalities have ramped up efforts to remove homeless encampments. Cities and counties remove the homeless from an area, forcing many to relocate.


Freeway underpasses and bridges become new settlements until Caltrans becomes aware and removes them. The homeless again find another spot on city or county land, and the cycle begins again. 

Preparing to safely handle hazardous waste

The grievance filed against Caltrans alleges that workers are put "in harm's way" when asked to perform such duties, especially without proper preparation and gear.

"They have to segregate waste," said Croucher. "Human waste, they have to put it over to the side of the cleanup zone and label it as hazardous materials. The needles have to be picked up and put in special containers, which they take back to the maintenance yards. Then they go around the grounds and pick up all the litter and debris." 

Coucher said Caltrans workers do not receive any training for the additional responsibility handling hazardous materials and are not given adequate equipment. The union representing Caltrans workers also says the workers should receive vaccinations for communicable diseases and a pay differential to compensate for the additional risk. 

Take Two reached out to Caltrans and they commented via email that "safety is a top priority for Caltrans and we will carefully review the grievance."

Croucher and I.U.O.E. officials are hoping to meet with Caltrans by the end of the month to "discuss our concerns, ideas they have, and coming up with a solution."