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Latino Workers in U.S. Suffer Highest Rates of Workplace Fatalities

latino WorkerOne of the most disturbing trends in the American workforce is the high correlation between race and the likelihood of being killed on the job.  Fatality rates for Latino workers in the U.S. are considerably higher than for workers overall. At its peak in 2006, the annual rate of workplace fatality for Latinos was 30 percent higher than the overall national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the time, Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of safety and health called the numbers “embarrassing,” and “so bad nobody could ignore them.”  The statistics also alarmed Latino groups, who argued that immigrants (especially undocumented workers) were disproportionately funneled into dangerous jobs like demolition and roofing. There were other complaints that Hispanic workers were given inadequate safety training, which should have been even more important given that many could not speak or read English.

In the years since, the Labor Department’s census of workplace fatalities has reported a 17% decrease in fatal workplace injuries, although some of this is attributed to declines in employment and a 6% drop in total hours worked.  In addition, the disparity in fatality rates between Latino workers and the overall work force has narrowed, currently standing at 12% higher for Latino.   According to the Labor Department, 668 Latinos died from workplace injuries in 2011, compared with 990 in 2006. Moreover, for foreign-born workers, fatal occupational injuries fell to 383 last year, down 43 percent from 667 in 2006.

Dana Loomis, an expert on workplace fatalities and chairman of the department of epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center called the figures “encouraging” and remarked that “I hope these numbers are true. It’s consistent with the overall downtrend in fatalities that we’ve seen in recent years. But there are reasons to be somewhat skeptical about the statistics.” Mr. Loomis noted that skepticism about the decline was warranted since the “denominator” – the total number of Latinos employed – is likely falling rapidly, and so not accurately estimated in this estimate.

He asked, “How much of this decline is due to the decline in the Hispanic work force that is not well measured, especially among the undocumented work force?”  Indeed, it proves extremely difficult to measure the number of undocumented workers from Mexico or Central America who have returned home — or even transferred from dangerous construction jobs to less dangerous jobs like picking fruit.

A bad economy and the U.S. immigration crackdown are certain factors in the trend of workers returning to Mexico and other Latin American countries, which in turn explains why foreign-born fatality rates fell so sharply last year – remember, many of these individuals held the most dangerous jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has also speculated that a significant factor behind the sharp decline in fatal injuries last year was simply because the deficit-laden state agencies (particularly in California, which has the largest Hispanic work force) have been much slower in collecting and reporting information about workplace injuries.

Catherine Singley, a workplace safety consultant with the National Council of La Raza, notes that construction trends have played a major factor.  “A lot of the decline in fatal injuries resulted from the decline in construction, especially workers in residential construction, which typically has been a hot spot for fatalities,” she said. “Every year many workers die from falling off roofs, and not coincidentally you find a heavy presence of Latino and immigrant workers in those jobs.”

As Steven Greenhouse noted, the issue reminds him of a central passage in his book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker”:

Soon after leaving Mexico, Moises and Rigoberto Xaca landed jobs in Blythewood, South Carolina, digging trenches for electrical and telecommunications lines for a new high school. On their first day on the job, the two brothers were crushed to death when the trench’s sandy walls collapsed. Moises was seventeen, and Rigoberto, fifteen. OSHA fined the contractor $42,075 for six violations, including failure to analyze the soil and failure to instruct the workers on how to prevent a trench collapse. Maria Smoak, director of the Hispanic ministry at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Columbia, South Carolina, asked whether the contractor would “be as careless or as negligent if they had been non-Hispanic workers.”

If you have experienced a workers compensation injury, a third-party injury, or need assistance recovering your workers compensation benefits from the Department of Labor and Industries, a Workers compensation attorney at Emery Reddy can represent your interests. Every day our L&I Lawyers defend the rights of workers who have been ordered to complete an independent medical exam, who need to appeal a denied L&I claim, or who have other difficulties with their L&I claim.

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