Occupational Hazard is a series about how different jobs affect workers' mental health.
A parade of men in hazmat suits gather outside a quaint suburban home tangled in withered vines. The front door opens and the smell of death bleeds into the uncontaminated December air. They walk through the kitchen littered with open cans of diced tomatoes and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup, past the six pairs of shoes meticulously lined up against the wall, where a bloodstained imprint of a life sits in the living room. He sat there for almost four weeks before someone complained about the stench. His blood had settled, and seeped deep into the recesses of his beloved leather recliner and through the floor below.
And it’s Scott Vogel’s job to clean it up.
Vogel, 32, works in an industry that not many people know exists, until they need it. The bio-recovery industry—often referred to as crime scene cleanup, biohazard remediation, or trauma scene restoration—specializes in the cleaning of blood, bodily fluids, and other potentially dangerous materials.
As a Certified Bio-Recovery Master at Emergi-Clean Inc., Vogel cleans up after suicides, homicides, and decomposition after unattended deaths. “You name it, I’ve seen it,” he says, casually rattling off recent jobs as if they were items on a grocery list. “I’ve seen people cut in half, mass shootings, and even a scene where there were probably 600,000 maggots feeding off of a body.” He’s become so used to the smell that he often opts for a thin surgical mask rather than a heavy-duty respirator.
This business sometimes requires a cold disposition and a strong stomach, but Vogel has only one of the two. With his rosy cheeks and an infectious smile, Vogel seems like the type of father who sits front row in the bleachers at every one of his daughter’s soccer games. On the road to the job site, he shows me a video of his three-year-old daughter, talks about his love of college football (he’s a UCF Knights fan), and cracks jokes about his family’s unique business—“It’s like Duck Dynasty…with blood!”
Vogel’s family-first attitude governs his work life as well. The bio-recovery business was started by his father, Ronald, who saw a need for a professional biohazard company while serving as a volunteer EMT in New Jersey. He founded Emergi-Clean in 1995. Vogel was drawn to helping others and became an EMT himself at age 16. His dad’s initial hesitancy about his son joining the family business led Vogel to pursue a masters in Criminal Research from the University of Central Florida. After working an unfulfilling government job, Vogel took over his father’s business in 2010.
Vogel speaks quickly and is never at a loss for words—not even at 6 am. He brags about his new black Chevy Traverse that his wife begged him to buy to replace his old pick-up, which was basically a billboard for Emergi-Clean. “She didn’t want me dropping off my daughter at daycare with a big blood drop on my car,” he says with a shrug. While he no longer drives a vehicle emblazoned with a cartoon blood drop named Bloodsie, Vogel still sports a Bloodsie logo on his black windbreaker and hangs the same decal on his Traverse’s rear view mirror.
A few decades ago, crime scene cleanup businesses like Vogel’s were nearly nonexistent. Today, hundreds of independent companies have multiplied across the country. But while many films such as Sunshine Cleaning and Cleaner paint the new, highly competitive industry to be a simple source of income, the business of cleaning up after death requires much more than rubber gloves and Lysol.
Vogel is on call 24/7 and has about 500 jobs a year. His days are far from routine since his work is emergency-based. He works alongside nine full-time employees and 15 to 18 per diem men.
On this early December morning, Vogel receives six calls during the 90-minute drive to the crime scene. A complaint of bat feces in an attic. A query about an upcoming suicide cleanup. And more mundane calls, like his wife’s concerns about the new washer/dryer they purchased on Black Friday.
“There are incidences where I’m getting a call at a wedding or when I’m at Disney with my kids,” he says about his unexpected schedule.
He takes the call and drops his plans because for him the job is about more than cleaning up. “Someone committed suicide. I put everything aside because right there and then, I’m helping somebody going through the worst time of their life.”
Helping grieving families cope accounts for half of the job. “I get to help people at their worst times,” Vogel says, with a hint of pride. “I can’t sit down and cry with a family, but I am going to be there to explain that we are there to help and that we understand.”
On this particular morning, Vogel assesses the scene before his technicians. He never really knows the severity of the scene he is walking into. “I don’t want my technicians to know the full story,” he explains. “I want them to go in and do their job, not to picture certain things or look for clues.”
Next, he documents everything for insurance and family purposes. Homeowner’s insurance normally covers the cost of crime-scene cleanup, unless the death is self-inflicted, so people can continue to live in the home or sell if that’s what they prefer. Most jobs take 9 to 12 hours and average $12,000. A lead supervisor like Vogel charges $144 per hour, while Vogel’s basic technicians earn $126 per hour.
The cleanup is sometimes the easy part for Vogel. What’s more difficult is learning personal histories and stories. It’s the hand-drawn picture of a flower labeled for Grandpa or the messy fold in the floral comforter that remind Vogel and his technicians—as much as they try to remain unaffected—that they’re cleaning up after a life.
Eric Morse, founder of Tri-State Bio Recovery based in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, also finds these little details hard to ignore.
“When you go into a scene, the less you know the better,” Morse, 44, says. “But the longer you’re there, you’re able to piece together things as you’re cleaning. You’re able to make observations that put together the last hours of someone’s life.”
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Morse, a former exterminator, had never experienced the level of satisfaction that he received from helping families rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. Spurred by that experience, he started his own bio-recovery business, fueled by his desire to help others in their time of need.
But the family reactions are often more unpredictable than the scene itself. “You can have people who are in shock and baking you cookies, acting like everything is fine, or you get people who are completely emotionally distraught,” he recalls. “Everyone handles death differently.”
While Morse and Vogel swiftly hedge family questions about what and how, they hesitate when a family member stricken with the guilt after a suicide asks the one question neither can answer: “Why did they do it?”
How can a person work in such an emotionally charged situation day after day? “When someone’s job comes with the understanding that they will be exposed to traumatic content, it can help the brain digest what it sees,” says Lindsay Bira, a clinical health psychologist based in San Antonio, Texas. “To think that our jobs do not affect us would be ignoring the science behind plasticity, defined as the way our brain changes in reaction to the world in which we live.”
Bira explains how taxi drivers in busy cities have measurable changes to their memory centers due to the large amount of time they spend at their job. Similarly, Vogel, who often works 36-hour shifts, sometimes feels as if he’s gradually become numb to it all.
Back at the quaint New Jersey home, Vogel and the technicians break apart the leather recliner with an X-Acto knife, an electric saw, and a sledgehammer. Each contaminated piece is placed in a separate red plastic bag designed for medical waste. The home becomes a construction site, as the floor is drawn up layer by layer revealing just how easily materials soak up human blood.
“This is what you call a job that keeps on giving,” Vogel says, peeling up a second layer of soiled carpet to reveal an unexpected layer of marble tile, also covered in blood.
Since dealing with blood is a part of the job description, crime-scene cleanup is a regulated industry—to a degree. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains rules governing how businesses handle blood-borne pathogens, respiratory risks, and working in confined spaces. However, these laws are not industry-specific and cross over into a variety of professions.
The bio-recovery business is generally unregulated. While there is no industry license required to operate a crime scene cleanup company, some certifications and state permits are often necessary to conduct certified business like annual OSHA training and a permit to transport medical waste. However, uninformed clients seldom verify these qualifications. Upon release of the scene after an investigation, some police officers make referrals to cleanup companies, a relationship that seems sketchy at best.
All of which is to say there’s no list of certified companies for a grieving relative in need of services. Instead, families are urged to “check the yellow pages or internet for ‘crime scene and trauma cleanup’” by New York City Department of Health’s “Guidelines for Trauma Scene Management.” Type “crime scene cleanup” into Google, and you’ll get hundreds of results. Families and property owners are left to fend for themselves, often resorting to their local carpet cleaners.
The last option offered by the DOH is to contact the American Bio Recovery Association (ABRA), the first specialty trade organization for this field. The ABRA is working to expand regulation nationwide. Currently, only California, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana have regulatory requirements specific to the crime-scene cleanup industry.
“I’ve dealt with Ebola and Anthrax,” he explains. “I dabble in higher-end diseases that will kill you.” That word ‘dabble’ is indicative of Vogel’s disposition: He talks about the most macabre aspects of life with almost glib humor.
Vogel believes the Ebola crisis in 2014 played a huge role in identifying the main competitors (and bad actors) in the industry. Many of the companies claiming expertise in biohazard clean-up refused take jobs involving the potentially fatal virus. This is why Vogel is drafting a bill for the state of New Jersey to make it easier for families to differentiate between certified professionals and money-hungry amateurs. He says the bill is being revised.
While Vogel might say things that would make the average person squirm, it’s his self-proclaimed “happy go-lucky” nature that allows him to endure his work.
“It is absolutely possible, and even likely, that most crime scene cleanup personnel can move on with their personal lives without too much impact,” Bira confirms. “However, it would be inaccurate to say there would be no impact.”
Vogel admits that some scenes hit him harder than others, particularly the death of a child. “Seven years ago, I could do it,” he explains. “Now with kids at home, I can’t deal with it.”
One situation that many technicians dread is unattended death. It’s not the pungent smell of rotting flesh, nor is it the excessive volume of blood that pours out of every orifice after a few weeks. It’s the mere idea that someone could go unnoticed for that long, only until a tenant complains about a possible gas leak.
That's one reason why Donna Nayler can’t help but think of the world as a lonely place. Nayler, a crime-scene cleaner and hair stylist based in Queensland, Australia, wrote the autobiography Bloodstains and Ballgowns in 2016 about her experiences in both careers. “It’s sad that the neighbors would rather light a scented candle in the hallway to mask the smell of death," she says, "rather than knock on the door.”
Morse recalls his first job in the industry: a shotgun suicide in a hoarding home filled to the brim with a variety of musical instruments, sex toys, and porn. “I was able to clean it up without a problem,” he explains. “The only thing that bothered me was that it’s sad people die alone. It’s troubling [that] so many people are dead without anyone knowing.”
But one thing these crime scene cleaners can agree on is their duty to erase any trace of death from a scene. For many, home is a source of comfort; coming home to a house drenched in the blood of a loved one seems unimaginable.
Vogel compares his work to finishing a novel with a bad ending. “You don’t want family members to end that novel with a bad picture,” he proclaims. “We come and make sure they still remember the last memory of giving them a hug at Christmas, not walking in and cleaning up blood.”
Cleanup simply refers to the removal of blood and other bodily fluids, but sometimes that includes ripping apart floors and walls. Restoration of the home can range from replacing carpet to repairing gunshot holes before repainting a wall. Many companies leave the restoration up to external companies, but Vogel wanted to incorporate it into his business model. He believes restoration of the home not only rebuilds the house itself, but also revitalizes the victim’s family.
It can be something as simple as switching wallpaper or transitioning from carpet to tile, but a little change goes a long way. “After this husband’s wife had committed suicide, I asked ‘what color do you want the wall now?’” he recalls of the husband’s desire to repaint the bedroom where his wife passed. “Although he was still upset, you could hear it in his voice that he was finally thinking about himself now, not just about what had happened.”
Aside from learning about the lives of others through interactions with the victim’s family, crime-scene cleaners glean a lot of information about themselves from the work they do—what horrors they can and can’t endure, how important that check-in call to their mother really is, and the way they want to raise a family.
Nayler learned how significant a smile to a stranger could really be. Morse realized no place is immune from violence, overdose, accidents, or crime, but still wants to raise his daughter with an appreciation and a zest for life. And Vogel promised himself to always come home to his wife and kids after a job, no matter how far he had to travel.
This industry is about erasing deaths and rebuilding lives. Back on site, Vogel and his team have completely removed the beloved recliner from the New Jersey home. The blood-soaked flooring is gone and countless boxes filled with hazardous waste are packed into the truck.
The rest of the home remains untouched—the plastic laundry basket filled with a clean load still sits on the bed, several freshly ironed plaid shirts still hang above the desk, and a portrait of a woman, a man, and a baby wearing a red bow is still displayed on the armoire.
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