Monday, March 15, 2004

Mexican Workers in the U.S.: Impaled, Shredded in Machinery, Buried Alive

The Last Day in the Life of a Mexican Meatpacking Worker
No one witnessed the exact moment.

Maybe the cuts were taking just that much too long because Soto couldn't pause to sharpen his knife. Maybe the next slab whacked Soto's hand as he turned a beat late.

The wound didn't look that bad. Martin Contreras, still a high-level worker at the plant, had seen gashes gush far more blood. This man will survive, he thought, standing above Soto.

The knife had punctured Soto's chest just above the protective mesh. Above the left collar bone - where the jugular vein returns blood from the head to the heart.

Within minutes, Soto went from yelling in pain to dazed silence.

Contreras sped behind the ambulance in a manager's car - past cornfields and the Last Chance steakhouse - to the medical clinic. It turned out there was no need to rush.

Soto's wife, Gloria Sustaita, arrived with their young sons. In the emergency room, she didn't flinch, didn't cry. But this was the boy she knew growing up in Mexico City, the 21-year-old man she married, the father of her boys, the reason she stayed in Nebraska.

Afterward, she told a confidant, she felt as if their trailer home had become her own grave - as if she were "in a coffin, too."

Excel was not fined for Soto's death because no federal safety standards covered the circumstances that killed him, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA did make five recommendations: among them, don't let workers pull double duty.
This is just one of many tragic stories uncovered by AP reporter Justin Pritchard in an excellent investigation of the high number of preventable workplace deaths among Mexican workers in the United States.
The jobs that lure Mexican workers to the United States are killing them in a worsening epidemic that is now claiming a victim a day, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Though Mexicans often take the most hazardous jobs, they are more likely than others to be killed even when doing similarly risky work.

The death rates are greatest in several Western and Southern states, where a Mexican worker is four times more likely to die than the average U.S.-born worker. In Arizona, the annual Mexican worker death toll has been increasing, but because of the large Mexican-born population their death rates are lower than most other states - though the rates are still well above the average for U.S.-born workers.

These accidental deaths are almost always preventable and often gruesome: Workers are impaled, shredded in machinery, buried alive. Some are as young as 15.
And things seem to be getting worse:
  • Mexican death rates are rising even as the U.S. workplace grows safer overall. In the mid-1990s, Mexicans were about 30 percent more likely to die than native-born workers; now they are about 80 percent more likely.

  • Deaths among Mexicans in the United States increased faster than their population. As the number of Mexican workers grew by about half, from 4 million to 6 million, the number of deaths rose by about two-thirds, from 241 to 387. Deaths peaked at 420 in 2001.
We know what the problems are. Mexican workers are hired to do the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs. They receive no training and little safety equipment. The are afraid to complain about unsafe conditions if they don’t speak English, don’t know their rights or if they are here illegally.

So what is OSHA doing about the problem? OSHA’s John Henshaw says the agency is trying to deal with the problem using its Spanish language factsheets and working through its Hispanic Taskforce, which coordinates outreach. That’s all well and fine, but they’ve got some major problems to address:
As OSHA works to improve safety, language remains a barrier. By the agency's own count, there are no Spanish-speaking inspectors or accident investigators in the half of Georgia that includes immigrant-rich Atlanta. Some other Southern cities do have Spanish-fluent enforcement officials.

In its eight-state Southeastern region, OSHA has a single Spanish-speaking outreach worker. Marilyn Velez encourages workers and employers to avoid unsafe practices.
And things are only going to get worse. With OSHA's funding stagnant, there will be no ability to hire any significant numbers of Spanish-speaking staff. And OSHA is attempting once again this year to kill the Susan Harwood worker training grant program which has funded a number of successful projects to educate immigrant workers about workplace safety and their rights.

The $11 million Harwood grants would be replaced with a $4 million program that would rely more on internet and other forms of electronic training rather than "inefficient" classroom training that had the disadvantage of being done during work time (ignoring the fact that OSHA standards require training to be done on worktime.)

Henshaw insists on selling the web-program as part of OSHA's Hispanic outreach program, conjuring up visions of tired Hispanic workers dragging home to their trailer parks from a 10 hour day cutting chickens in the poultry plant, making dinner, helping the kids with homework, and then relaxing in front of their high-speed internet connections for a bit of health and safety training.

Another issue raised by the article:
President Bush's recent proposal to grant illegal immigrants temporary legal protections energized the national immigration debate. Yet in these discussions, job safety has been an afterthought. Meanwhile, Mexicans continue to die on the job.
I’m skeptical that Bush’s proposal will help at all (even in the very unlikely event that it gets passed) as I’ve written before. Making semi-legal immigrants dependent on staying in the good graces of their employer isn’t likely to make workers more confident about complaining to OSHA about health and safety problems. Workers Comp Insider has more discussion about the effect of Bush's immigration proposal on the health and safety conditions of Hispanic workers.

Meanwhile, the Nation’s Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association also has a special report on Work Place Health Disparities Increasing Among Hispanics. (Scroll down to page 11)

The article focuses on many of the health related problems facing Hispanic workers in the United States and notes that the U.S. lacks a reliable system of accurately tracking occupational disease and injury, especially date pertaining to certain ethnic and racial minorities. Pesticide exposure is one of the most serious problems facing Hispanic workers, according to Virginia Ruiz, environmental health coordinator at the Farmworker Justice Fund:
When Ruiz talks to farm workers along the border, she often hears complaints such as lack of pesticide safety training, not being provided with handwashing equipment, not being told when or where pesticides have been applied and, occasionally, stories of being directly exposed to pesticides.
Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest regional director for United Farmworkers raised another problem: Health care professionals often miss many pesticide-related health because they don’t ask the workers where they work and what they do.

Finally, the APHA article discusses the problems of day laborers in New York city, including those who face respiratory health problems stemming from clean-up of the World Trade Centers.

Also, see this article about a pesticide poisoning in Florida.