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Hispanic workers at risk

On-the-job death rate 20% higher than other employees

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Often hired for low-end jobs like construction labor and meatpacking, Hispanic immigrants in the United States die from workplace injuries at a far higher rate than other workers.

In recent years the rate of on-the-job deaths for all Hispanics has been 20 percent higher than for whites or blacks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found. The death rate for Hispanics in construction, an industry that has hired many immigrants in recent years, is even higher, occupational experts say.

Job safety officials say that Hispanic immigrants, often unskilled and often here illegally, are hired disproportionately into many of the most dangerous jobs, like roofing and taxi driving.

Recent occupational safety reports say Hispanic construction workers have died when they have slipped off wet roofs and when the trenches they have been digging have collapsed and buried them. These reports also detail numerous incidents in which migrant farm workers died when overcrowded vans crashed while their foremen were driving them to the fields.

Dana Loomis, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina who has studied racial disparities in occupational injuries, said: "There is a long history of discriminatory hiring in the United States involving immigrants, with the result that for many, many years, immigrants have done the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs."

"In many parts of the country," Loomis said, "recent Latino immigrants are being hired because they will accept lower wages and poorer working conditions than U.S.-born workers."

Safety experts also say language barriers often contribute to the higher Hispanic injury rate, noting, for instance, that at many job sites, safety instructions and warnings appear only in English.

"If someone yells, 'Watch out,' you don't necessarily act as fast if it's not your native language," said James Platner, associate director of the Center to Protect Worker Rights, an educational arm of the Building Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

In Texas, job safety officials say, a Hispanic worker died from carbon monoxide poisoning because he was not able to read a warning telling workers not to use power cleaners in enclosed spaces.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 725 of the 6,023 occupational deaths reported in 1999 involved Hispanic workers.

With the construction industry booming in recent years, many contractors have relied increasingly on day laborers to fill job openings.

"If you're a day laborer who gets picked up at a local 7-Eleven and paid cash for that day, there's no opportunity to learn about safety on the job," Platner said. "They're not going to spend a day teaching you about safety."