Safety Is Seguridad: A Workshop Summary. Communicating Occupational Safety and Health Information to Spanish Speaking Workers, San Diego, May 29-30, 2002. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2003 Jan; :83-92
It is becoming increasing clear that Spanish-speaking workers in the United States work in some of the most dangerous industries, and they currently have the highest occupational fatality rate of any ethnic group. While workplace deaths for white and black workers declined in 2000, deaths for Hispanic/Latino workers increased sharply from 729 in 1999 to 815 in 2000, with a 24 percent jump in construction fatalities. The extent of the problem is not necessarily captured in this Bureau of Labor Statistics data for a variety of reasons. A Newsday investigative series in July 2001, reported that, "OSHA officials say immigrant deaths in construction and manufacturing are far more likely than retail or agriculture to come to their attention because they are often unionized jobs where safety violations are more frequently reported." In Newsday's study of New York state's workplace deaths in a six year period, they found the deaths occurred, "in retail places such as late-night restaurants, gas stations, and other small, cash-only businesses, yet only a small percentage of all OSHA fatality investigations occurred in this area." In addition to possible underreporting of workplace fatalities, it is likely there is also underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses - such as musculoskeletal disorders - by Spanish-speaking workers and their employers as these can be "hidden" more easily than a fatality. The reasons for such non-reporting are many, but a major factor is that many of these workers are undocumented, without legal work papers. It has been estimated that in some industries, particularly in California, undocumented workers account for fifty percent or more of the workforce. The current head of Federal OSHA, has acknowledged that, "We recognize that employers who hire undocumented workers may be afraid to report workplace deaths, due to possible legal repercussions from their hiring practices." Undocumented workers particularly are often afraid to report injuries or illnesses for fear that they will be fired or turned in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service by the employers. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, "The number of Hispanic workers in the U.S. work force is expected to increase by more than one-third over the next decade." This fact, combined with the disproportionate number of Hispanic/Latino workplace fatalities in 2000, 13.8 percent, vis-a-vis their proportion of employment, 10.7 percent, points to the need for new interventions to stop this rising tide. (And it should also be noted that it is not only in California, New York, New Jersey and Florida where a significant number of Spanish-speaking people are now working. There are significant numbers in North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, Maine, and other states as industries in these states recruit low wage, immigrant workers to improve their profit margins.) Part of the solution is to provide information and training to these workers in their first language in an accurate and culturally sensitive manner. Health and safety professionals point out that, "Hispanic immigrants, partly because many do not speak English, often receive less job and safety training than American-born workers do….language barriers often contribute to the higher Hispanic injury rate…many job sites, safety instructions and warnings appear only in English." It is important to emphasize, however, that information and training cannot be the only preventive action taken. Putting all the burden on the worker to "work safely" reflects a limited understanding of how to effectively make the workplace safe and also is unfair to the worker. Engineering controls is the most desirable and effective safety method - such as putting guards on cutting machines or having a lockout system in place when doing electrical maintenance. Needed personal protective equipment must also be an integral part of the safety program, such as providing harnesses/safety belts when doing elevated work. And providing eating/drinking areas that are not contaminated with lead or other workplace toxics is another necessity. Once these control measures are in place, information and training for the worker will cover why the guards are there and must stay in place, steps to follow when locking out a machine and why/how to wear safety harnesses and why/how to practice good hygiene so that one's food or drink is not contaminated with workplace toxics.
Marianne Parker Brown, Director, LOSH Program, University of California at Los Angeles, Hershey Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1478
Safety Is Seguridad: A Workshop Summary. Communicating Occupational Safety and Health Information to Spanish Speaking Workers, San Diego, May 29-30, 2002