Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Preventing Hispanic Worker Deaths: An Uphill Battle in NC

Better start climbing

You wonder why there are so many immigrant deaths in American workplaces?
"I had one boss who told me to go to the top of a roof," Tomas Ramirez recalled. "I said, 'Give me a rope," and he said 'I had another guy do it without a rope; are you a chicken?' Well, I'm not a chicken, so I climbed up there without the rope."
In North Carolina, while workplace deaths and injuries are falling in general, Hispanic deaths and injuries are on the rise
In 2002, the last year for which complete statistics are available, there were 169 workplace fatalities in North Carolina. That was 17 percent fewer than the year before, and the lowest number since record-keeping began in 1992. It was a remarkable improvement, with one exception: 25 Hispanics died on the job that year, up from 20 the year before.

Since October, at least six more Hispanics have died on the job in North Carolina, Labor Department data shows. Two of them lost their lives this past Monday in separate construction accidents in Wake County, the latest reminder of the risks such jobs bring.

Workers of Hispanic origin are also over-represented in nonfatal work injuries. In 2002, Hispanics made up 5.3 percent of the state's work force, but 7.4 percent of nondeadly accidents that involved days away from work, according to data released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics
State officials say they're trying to address the problem. Some aren't so convinced
Tom O'Connor, a Chapel Hill-based coordinator for COSH, a national network of worker advocacy groups, is more blunt.

"Whatever they're doing doesn't seem to be working," he said.

O'Connor is helping lead a campaign to impose tougher federal penalties on employers that don't follow safety and health regulations. He points to California, which three years ago raised the maximum civil fines for serious workplace safety violations to $25,000, compared with North Carolina's $7,000.

Cherie Berry, chairwoman of the N.C. Labor Commission, doesn't think that tougher penalties would fix the problem.

A lot of small businesses, she said, can't afford to pay fines higher than what her agency levies today, so why force them out of business? But Berry also called on more employers to step up to the plate.

"We're out there trying to point out the benefits of training workers in safety," she said. "But it's also incumbent on the industry to self-police."
OK, now let me get this straight. We don't want to fine businesses because they can't afford to pay the fines, but you're somehow going to convince them to shell out money to enjoy the "benefits" of making their workplaces safe? Seems to me that there's no greater benefit for a business than to avoid a fine that might put them out of business. (While I always hate to sound partisan -- I'm a uniter, not a divider -- it should be noted that the Ms. Berry's position is elected and she, unlike the rest of the North Carolina cabinet, is a Republican -- in case you couldn't tell from her "philosophy.")

And what is "self-policing" in this context? Are businesses going to fine each other? You get kicked out of the country club if you kill more than one worker per year? Maybe drivers should start self policing other drivers too. I've always wanted to make a citizens' arrest when someone runs a light and almost hits me.

Which is not to say that solving the problem is an easy task
In the 1990s, North Carolina had the fastest-growing Hispanic population of any state, Census data shows. The numbers have continued to soar through the recent economic downturn: Between 2000 and 2002, the state's Hispanic population grew an additional 16 percent to nearly half a million residents.

During the same three-year period, North Carolina's Hispanic work force grew 42.3 percent to 215,000.

In 2002, nearly 30 percent of Hispanic workers in North Carolina earned their living in construction, the industry that claimed more lives than any other that year: 44. One in five worked in manufacturing and one in 10 in agriculture, the industries that rank second and third in terms of fatalities.
The North Carolina Department of Labor doesn't have enough Spanish speakers and often can't keep those it has because they are lured away by better wages in private industry.

So what's the answer if you want to address the problem? Spend the money that's needed, increase the disincentives to killing workers, or rely on self-policing?

I think we're seeing the answer.