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Darkness had enveloped the Newell Recycling yard by the time Erik Hilario climbed into a front-end loader on a cold evening in January 2011. Just 19 years old, Hilario, an undocumented immigrant, had followed his father from Mexico to an industrial park in East Point, Ga., near Atlanta, where they worked as low-skilled laborers amid jagged piles of scrap metal bound for the smelter.

Hilario drove to a paved section of the nine-acre yard known as the defueling or car-processing area. Here, according to witnesses in a court case, gasoline was removed from junked cars through a crude process employing a 30-foot crane and a long spike welded atop a metal trough. A claw attached to the crane would pick up cars and smash them, gas-tank first, onto the spike, spilling gasoline into the trough. The crane then would swing the cars across the pavement and drop them onto a pile, dripping gas along the way. Hilario was using the loader – which Newell later would say he was not trained or authorized to operate – to scrape up bits of metal left behind.

Hilario was slowly pushing the scraps into a pile when an intense fire suddenly engulfed him. A spark had ignited gasoline on the ground. “Help me!” he screamed, co-workers later testified in the case.

A green industry

Recycling may be good for the environment, but working conditions in the industry can be woeful. Recycling encompasses a wide range of businesses, from tiny drop-off centers operating out of strip malls and parking lots, to sprawling scrapyards and cavernous sorting plants, where cardboard, plastic and metal destined for places like China and Turkey are separated. The recycling industry also includes collection services, composting plants and e-waste and oil recovery centers. Some of these jobs rank among the most dangerous in America. Others offer meager pay, and minimum wage violations are widespread. Experts say much of the work is carried out by immigrants or temporary workers who are unaware of their rights or are poorly trained.

“These are not good jobs,” said Jackie Cornejo, former director of Don’t Waste LA, a campaign to improve the working conditions and pay for workers in the Los Angeles municipal waste and recycling industries. “People only hear about the feel-good aspects of recycling and zero waste, and rarely do they hear about the other side,” she said.

Despite its virtuous image as one of the original green industries, recycling is dirty, labor-intensive work. It involves loud, heavy machinery, including semis, forklifts, conveyor belts, loaders, cranes, shredders and grinders, all of which pose a serious threat to life and limb, especially if they’re not properly serviced or lack basic safety features, which is often the case at recycling firms. Unlike manufacturing, recycling cannot be completely systematized because it depends on an ever-changing flow of recyclable materials that come in all manner of shapes and sizes. This can require recycling workers to personally handle most of the scrap passing through a facility, potentially exposing them to carcinogens, explosives or toxics, to say nothing of sharp objects.

Exposures are especially problematic at e-scrap and battery recycling facilities, where the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has found workers with elevated levels of lead in their blood or on their skin.

In one case in Ohio, the high lead levels in the blood of a young brother and sister were traced to the work performed by their father, a former e-scrap recycling worker who crushed cathode ray tubes. The father didn’t wear any protective gear at work and often came home with dust in his hair. High lead levels also were found in the children of workers at a battery recycling plant in Puerto Rico.

While major corporations like Waste Management are in the recycling business, many of the companies that do this work are small, which can mean they lack the knowledge and resources to establish effective safety procedures. Recycling workers, by virtue of their immigration status or status as temps, often hesitate to speak up when they see hazards on the job or are victimized by the outright illegal behavior of their supervisors.

One of the largest sectors in recycling, scrapyards, has long had high fatality and injury rates. In 2014, for example, that sector’s fatality rate was 20.8 deaths per every full-time 100,000 workers, more than nine times higher than manufacturing workers overall. That same year, garbage and recycling collectors had the fifth-highest fatality rate among the dozens of occupations analyzed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

No one tracks how many workers die across all recycling sectors. But at scrapyards and sorting plants, at least 313 recycling workers have been killed on the job from 2003 to 2014, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A FairWarning analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration records found that inspections conducted from 2005 to 2014 resulted with scrapyards and sorting facilities receiving about 80 percent more citations than the average inspected worksite.

Industry leaders and safety consultants say it’s no secret that recycling firms have to do a better job of following basic safety procedures, like installing guarding on conveyor belts or properly shutting off machines before maintenance. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade association, recently announced that it is partnering with OSHA to try to reduce injury and fatality rates.

OSHA has limited resources, especially given the sheer number of worksites it oversees. The AFL-CIO calculates that with current staffing levels federal OSHA can only inspect worksites once, on average, every 140 years.

“Systematically, across the country, (OSHA officials) haven’t given the industry the attention it’s due,” said Eric Frumin, the health and safety coordinator for Change to Win, a partnership of four national unions. Although OSHA says that five of its 10 regions have special enforcement programs covering sectors of the recycling industry, safety advocates say it isn’t enough. They are lobbying the agency to create a national program aimed at sorting plants, where recyclables like metal, paper and plastic are separated. “It’s a low end of the economy,” Frumin said. “We’ve shipped all the factory jobs to China, so what is the modern-day equivalent of dirty, dangerous factory jobs? Warehouses and recycling plants.”

Fourteen spinning blades

“I did not realize the danger,” said Alice Pulliam of Reidsville, N.C., whose 32-year-old son, Christopher Webb, was killed at the Southern Investments plastic recycling plant in July 2012. A firm of just 13 employees, Southern Investments was owned by businessman Donald Southern. It purchased loads of milk jugs, detergent bottles and other recyclable plastics and ground them into bits for re-sale to businesses that would further process the material.

The company operated out of what appeared to be an old brick-and-steel, tobacco warehouse. A state inspector later described the facility as “littered with debris.” One of the large machines the plant used to grind plastics was powered by an extension cord that ran through a hole in the wall and a window to a 110-volt outlet.

One day, just a couple of months after joining the company, Webb was feeding giant bales of compacted bottles and jugs into an auger with 14 spinning blades. More than a foot long and sharpened to a point, these blades broke up the bales before finer grinding elsewhere in the plant. As was standard procedure at Southern Investments, Webb used a forklift to place the bales, each nearly three feet high, on an elevated platform next to the mouth of the auger, according to the state inspector’s report. While the blades spun below him, Webb climbed onto the bales to sever the wires that held them together. Then he used the forklift to push the bales into the auger.

Webb was on top of a bale, cutting the wires, when he fell into the spinning blades below. His head was crushed while co-workers scrambled to shut off the machine. A subsequent investigation by the North Carolina Department of Labor, Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that employees weren’t instructed to shut down the machine while on top of the bales, and that the auger did not have the proper guarding to prevent workers from coming in contact with the blades.

The state also found a litany of safety violations for which other Donald Southern companies had been cited before – including another plastic recycling firm. The state cited Southern Investments with 35 safety violations – including 16 willful violations, the most serious type – and fined the company the unusually high sum of $441,000. Saying he was unable to pay, Donald Southern agreed to close Southern Investments and not take an ownership or supervisory role in another plastic recycling business in North Carolina. He declined to comment for this story.

$55 a day

Recycling drop-off centers have become a priority target of wage theft investigations in California by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Ruben Rosalez, Wage and Hour’s western regional administrator, said these small businesses are among the “worst that we have to deal with,” as exploitive of their workers as garment sweatshops or the agricultural industry.

Particularly common in Southern California, drop-off centers pay customers for recyclable bottles and cans and plastic containers. They require little investment – just a couple of large waste baskets to separate the materials, a scale and the container – and deal almost exclusively in cash.

Wage and Hour investigators in Los Angeles have found that these businesses often were paying their handful of employees as little as $55 or $65 a day, regardless of the hours they worked. At times employers haven’t even kept payroll records, and some have failed to provide bathrooms for workers.

In one case, the Department of Labor got a restraining order against the owner of a string of Los Angeles drop-off centers who was accused of threatening to fire workers or report them to immigration authorities if they cooperated with federal officials investigating allegations that he failed to pay minimum wage and overtime to employees putting in 60-hour work weeks. Five months later, the company, Recycling Innovations, and its owner, Karim Ameri, agreed to pay more than $74,000 in back wages.

“It hasn’t gotten better,” said an undocumented worker at Recycling Innovations, who asked that he not be named since he still works for the company. The employee said that even though he now makes minimum wage, his take-home pay remains about the same because he works fewer hours and taxes are deducted from his check. He said he’d like to get another job, but feels trapped by his immigration status.

Last year, Wage and Hour’s western region obtained agreements calling for more than $365,000 in back pay and damages to be returned to workers at 33 recycling drop-off centers. The Labor Department said more than 85 percent of the money has already been paid. And just last month, Wage and Hour announced that Garcia Recycling Center & Metals, a drop-off center with three locations in Orange County, Calif., agreed to pay $200,378 in back wages and damages to 15 workers for failing to pay overtime.

Desperate for work

The nation’s largest trash haulers, Waste Management and Republic Services, are also the largest recycling firms, specializing in residential pickup and processing. In 2014, recycling generated a combined $1.7 billion in revenue for the two corporations, or about 7.5 percent of total sales.

The last comprehensive analysis of the American recycling industry, commissioned in 2001 by the National Recycling Coalition, estimated that recycling employed more than 1 million people nationwide. Private scrap yards alone generated more than an estimated $80 billion in revenue in 2015.

The recycling industry tends to attract the desperate and the downtrodden. David Lightfritz, 51, of Marietta, Ohio was killed in 2011 at Marietta Industrial Enterprises when he tried unjamming a large machine used to separate glass from paper and plastics. Lightfritz got into the recycling business after his previous employer, a local golf course, learned he was a registered sex offender. “He didn’t have anything else,” said David’s older brother, Willard Lightfritz. “He wasn’t out of prison long and he was dead working for crap money” – just $7-something an hour, Willard said.

A year later, brothers Armando and Heladio Ramirez, two young, undocumented workers from Mexico, died of hydrogen sulfide poisoning at a composting facility in Bakersfield, Calif. While there is little or no data on recycling worker demographics, researchers, union organizers and labor officials all believe that immigrants, both documented and undocumented, make up a significant portion of the workforce.

Recycling workers are “tucked away in industrial parks, inside facilities where it’s sort of opaque what’s happening in there, and you’ve got a population of workers who, whether through their immigration status or because they’re working for a temp agency, are really in a tough position to be able to speak up,” Hays Witt, deputy director of the national Partnership for Working Families, a network of advocacy organizations.

Defueling on the Punch

The son of Gabina Martinez Flores and Efrain Hilario, Erik Hilario was born in Toluca, Mexico, the second oldest of six children. An earnest boy with neatly cropped hair, Erik liked the Chivas soccer team, Dodge cars and PlayStation video games.

Erik’s older brother, Efrain Jr., moved to the Atlanta area and started working for Newell in 2007. His father followed him there, and Erik did, too. Erik, who made $8 an hour, dreamed of saving his Newell paychecks to buy a car for himself and a house for his mom. “He was a very obedient child,” his father testified. The Hilario family did not respond to interview requests.

The Newell Recycling yard where Erik worked was established in the mid-1970s, by Alton Scott Newell, the inventor of the automobile shredder. In 1995, he sold the property to his daughter, Sharon Newell Shirley, who grew the company by buying up small recycling firms around the state. In all, under Sharon, Newell Recycling opened 11 new locations in Georgia and one in South Carolina, a record of success she attributes on the company’s website to her “adherence to Christian principles.” Newell Recycling declined to comment for this story.

Around 2008, Newell started developing a process for removing gas from junked cars. Newell operations manager named Roger Gomez said he helped design and build an 11-foot steel structure incorporating a spike on top of a trough to handle the job. Current and former workers testified that Newell never developed any written safety policies for operating the apparatus, which was known internally as the Punch. Workers at the yard were simply shown how to use a nearby crane to pick up cars and puncture their gas tanks with the spike.

Over the next 2½ years, some 40,000 cars were emptied on the Punch. But there were problems: workers testified that at least three fires broke out in the defueling area, the last one a week or two before Erik’s loader was engulfed in flames.

The odyssey of the Mobro 4000

Recycling in the U.S. started to take off in the late 1980s, after a barge known as the Mobro 4000 set sail from New York with 3,000 tons of garbage. Dubbed “the Flying Dutchman of trash,” the barge spent months trying to find a landfill that would take its waste, garnering national media attention. Six states and three countries rejected the Mobro, suspecting it carried hazardous materials, before it eventually returned to New York, where the trash was incinerated.

In the ensuing years, as the environmental movement grew, states and municipalities passed laws pushing recycling to save landfill space and promote the return of bottles and cans. Programs also were introduced to promote yard waste collection and electronic waste recycling.

Since the 1980s, the percentage of municipal solid waste recycled in the United States steadily rose until it leveled off a few years ago at about 34 percent, contributing to the current slump in the industry.

Dangers seen and unseen

Generally, the hazards at scrapyards and sorting plants are typical of any major industrial operation, with forklifts, trucks and conveyor belts in constant motion. At times, stacks of recyclables threaten to tip over and machines jam or break down. Safety measures to combat these hazards are well known and widely implemented in other industries. “This is not rocket science,” says Susan Eppes, a Houston-based safety consultant to the recycling industry.

Yet basic safety procedures are often ignored in recycling plants, experts say. Consider the case of Robert Santos, a 46-year-old line supervisor at a Republic Services plant in North Las Vegas, where he helped dump big mounds of recyclables onto a conveyor belt built into the floor. Using radios, workers would direct front-end loaders to push paper or plastics from a holding bay onto the belt, which rolled towards a baler. Safety inspectors later learned that it was common practice at the facility for employees to stand on the belt, even while it was moving, to help pull material from the holding bay, or to sweep up material along the sides of the belt.

On the morning of June 8, 2012, work at the sorting facility was delayed two hours because a wet mass of paper had clogged the holding bay, making it impossible for employees to transfer the material onto the conveyor belt. Once it was finally unjammed, Santos stood on the conveyor belt, yanking paper from the bay, when two to three tons of paper suddenly collapsed on top of him, according to the inspection report. A co-worker would later remember him shouting “Stop the belt! Stop the belt!” before he was engulfed in a pile of paper eight feet high.

After firefighters directed employees to use a loader to lift the paper off of him, Santos was found to have minimal brain activity. He was taken off life support six days later and died. The Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Republic Services $5,390 for the incident. Asked to justify such a small fine for a fatal accident, the chief administrative officer of Nevada OSHA said the fine was in line with agency policy, noting that investigators did not find “clear indifference to employee safety and health” at the sorting facility. Republic Services did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Failing to anticipate hazards also has proven fatal. George Rininger, a 50-year-old employee of the Kantner Iron and Steel scrapyard in Stoystown, PA, was working one day in August 2011 when a truck pulled up with a large metal box. The driver had just bought the contents of an old barn and wanted to sell Kantner the large box for scrap. The box, however, was tightly secured with two locks and the driver couldn’t get it open. A supervisor at Kantner told Rininger to cut the locks off using a torch.

Rininger had just cut off the second lock and was stepping backwards when the box exploded, fatally burning him. Investigators later discovered the box contained black powder and had been registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. OSHA fined the yard $7,800. An OSHA spokeswoman said the agency found no evidence that the employer “intentionally” disregarded the law, which would have justified a bigger fine.

“The lesson we took is unless it’s open and we can look in it and see in it we won’t take anything now,” said John Toth, owner of Kantner, who described Rininger’s death as “devastating” and “senseless.”

On the line

2015 study of conditions at sorting facilities found that workers are vulnerable to repetitive motion injuries, getting their fingers caught in machinery and sticks from needles and other sharp objects that end up on the line. “During interviews, some workers described how they had created their own personal hand tools (sticks with bent nails or hooks) to assist them with line sorting jobs and to attempt to relieve the stress” associated with constantly reaching across a rapidly moving conveyor belt, report said.

Danny Mendez, 35 of Huntington Beach, Calif., said he was sore the first few weeks after he started working at a local sorting facility in June 2014. Mendez picked through cardboard, wood, metal and concrete trucked in from construction and demolition sites. For hours at a time, he would stand by a wide conveyor belt and hoist heavy chunks of recyclable debris into massive roll-off bins. For protection, he wore a helmet, safety glasses and a mask over his mouth and nose. “There’s a chance you could be exposed to asbestos,” he explained.

Mendez said working the line can be overwhelming for new employees. As debris rumbles by, you have to quickly spot and grab valuable pieces of recyclable material among a speeding mass of sharp objects, all while keeping an eye upstream for any bigger hazards that might be coming your way. If you’re not careful, Mendez said, you can get smacked by a piece wood or rebar that’s hanging off the edge of the belt. The workers try to warn each other about what’s coming, but the conveyor belt is loud, so everybody has to shout to be heard.

Early on, Mendez saw a co-worker cut his hand on a broken television monitor. It sliced right through the man’s leather-padded gloves. The facility was bought by Republic Services about six months after Mendez started working there and he says the new management puts an emphasis on safety. But in an environment like this, “There’s only so much you can do to prevent accidents,” he said. Danger is “just part of the job, part of the industry.”

Mendez has since been promoted to lead spotter, a job that requires him to coordinate the flow of traffic around the dumping floor, where customers unload debris and workers driving excavators put it onto a conveyor belt. The job is vital to the safety of everyone in the dumping area; OSHA officials say people getting hit by vehicles is one of the most common hazards at recycling facilities.

Mendez’s promotion netted him a 50 cent raise, to $11 an hour, but he says many of his colleagues make just around the California minimum wage of $10. Having worked several other blue collar jobs, including as an assistant manager of a lumber yard, Mendez thinks the pay is lousy and he’s not sure if he’ll stay with the company. One of his biggest frustration is his twice-monthly Saturday shift, when he is the only spotter on duty. During the week, he works in a team of three. Mendez said he has complained to his supervisor that having only one spotter directing traffic when the facility can get lots of customers is potentially dangerous, but nothing has changed. “It’s on them,” Mendez said. “There’s only so much I can do.”

Gasoline on the ground

When the fire was finally extinguished, Erik Hilario’s severely charred body was found 10 feet from the equally charred loader. A doctor reviewing Hilario’s autopsy later determined that he was probably conscious for as long as five minutes before his body overheated and he passed out and died. Investigators also found puddles of gasoline all over the area.

Hilario’s family moved quickly to file a wrongful death lawsuit. At the end of February 2011, less than two months after the fire, the Hilario family’s attorney sent Newell executives a letter telling them to preserve evidence. Newell’s response was to sell the loader and destroy the Punch, according to a statement made in court by the family’s attorney.

Newell claimed that gasoline ended up on the ground not because of a defect in the company’s defueling process but because a rogue employee working that day had improperly used the crane to rip gas tanks out of cars rather than punching them on the spike. The company admitted it was at fault for Erik’s death, but said it shouldn’t be on the hook for punitive damages. The Hilario family disagreed, and took the company to trial in late August 2015.

One of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses was mechanical engineering expert David Brani, who testified that Newell could have purchased a safer device to defuel cars when it developed the Punch. Furthermore, Brani said the Punch was, by design, “dangerous and defective.”

In early September, a Fulton County, Ga. jury awarded $29.2 million to the Hilario family. Newell and the family subsequently settled the case out of court. But the pain of a life cut short lingers for members of the family, who were described by their lawyer as still reeling from Erik’s death five years later. “He wanted to be somebody,” testified Erik’s older brother, Efrain Jr., who cried while on the stand. “He had many dreams.”

Reporter Bridget Huber contributed to this report. The Courtroom View Network provided access to its archive of video trial testimony.

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