Monday, July 26, 2004

OSHA "Summits" With Friends While Hispanic Workers Continue to Die

Only a few hundred miles and several hours away from Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao's keynote address at the Department of Labor's Hispanic Summit in Orlando, Florida (where she also managed to give away some strategically placed government funding), construction workers Lauro Hernandez of Oakland Park and Gregorio Ruiz of Wilton Manors were crushed to death under tons of concrete when a three-story townhouse in West Palm Beach collapsed on top of them. Five workers were hospitalized and one worker, 19 years old, remains in critical condition. One of the workers who escaped the collapse was 13 years old.

The Hispanic Summit had come under sharp criticism for serving as window dressing on a serious and deadly crisis facing Hispanic workers in this country. A group of labor unions, community organizations and COSH groups denounced the summit last week "as a blatant election-year play for Hispanic votes."

According to the Orlando Sentinel,
Although scheduled to showcase various best practices for reducing Hispanic fatalities in the workplace, the summit was eclipsed by political overtones in a presidential-election year when Hispanics are one of Florida's key swing populations.
The only co-sponsors of the Summit were a couple of Hispanic business associations. NIOSH had dropped its sponsorship because the Department of Labor refused to allow the research agency any meaningful role in organizing the conference. Labor unions and community organizations that do the most work with Hispanic workers were not invited.

Doing her part in a closely fought election campaign in which the Republican party is losing support among Hispanic voters, Chao took advantage of the event's strategic location to spread a little election-year cheer largesse:
Chao used the Orlando event to hand over a check for $2.76 million to Esperanza USA, the largest faith-based, Hispanic nonprofit organization in the United States.

The three-year grant is in addition to other funds Esperanza has received to administer the Hispanic portion of Bush's Faith Initiative Capacity Project. The money will allow faith-based organizations in nine U.S. cities to work with at-risk Hispanic youth.

Two of the cities included in the grant's first year are in Florida: Miami and Orlando. In Orlando, the initiative is administered by Pastor Angel Rios of the Hispanic Association of Christian Churches of Central Florida.
In her keynote speech, Chao noted that
Since 2002, there has been a consistent decrease in all workplace fatalities. I am proud of the fact that for the first time in seven years, workplace fatalities among Hispanic workers declined in 2002," U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao said.
While "since 2002" is technically true, 2002 is the last year for which the federal government has statistics.

And as a recent AP article pointed out:
The good news did not extend to the overall Hispanic immigrant population the department is trying to reach. Workers in that group -- which includes Central and South Americans, as well as Mexicans -- continued to die in record numbers in 2002, federal data show....

The decline in Mexican-born worker deaths came during the safest year on record for the overall work force in the United States. From 2001 to 2002, total on-the-job deaths fell from 5,915 workers to 5,524 workers -- an unprecedented 6.6 percent drop.

Deaths among U.S.-born Hispanic workers declined at an even greater rate in 2002. However, deaths among all foreign-born Hispanics rose that year over 2001, from 572 to 577. It was also the first year Mexican-born worker fatalities fell since 1994-1995, when deaths dropped from 213 to 206.
And what is this all about?
Because of the importance of family in the Hispanic community, the Department is making safety a family affair. OSHA's Dallas and Ft. Lauderdale offices, for example, have sponsored family safety days for Spanish-speaking workers. They feature health and safety learning activities for everyone in the family and health and safety training sessions for workers.
Is she just being patronizing, or is safety a family affair for Hispanics because so many Hispanic children teenagers die in the workplace.

Assistant Secretary of Labor John Henshaw took credit for a decline in the number of Hispanic deaths in 2002, crediting OSHA's Hispanic initiative which consisted of a website, a toll-free number, public service announcements in Spanish, more Spanish-speaking staff members and expanded training.

Ironically, OSHA boasted of
50 nonprofit groups [funded]as part of our Susan Harwood Training Grant Program that provide training or develop training materials for others to use. Let me just share with you a few examples of what our training grantees are offering to Spanish-speaking workers and employers:
Ironic, first, because for the fourth straight year, the Bush administration is attempting to eliminate the Harwood program. In addition, Henshaw failed to mention its largest and most successful Harwood grant to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (formerly known as the National Network of Committees/Coalitions on Occupational Safety and Health)--a federation of non-profit organizations around the United States that advocate for worker safety and health. Possibly because the COSH groups received the 5-year grant under the Clinton administration and individual COSH groups have been critical of the Bush administration's workplace safety policies.

I have already written extensively about the "success" of OSHA's Hispanic initiative and whether or not OSHA could take credit for the 2002 decline. Read the whole thing, but in a nutshell, it's unlikely:
First, OSHA's Hispanic worker initiative wasn't announced until the end of February 2002. An 8% drop in fatalities as a result of a 10 month-old program would be impressive, indeed.

[Associated Press writer Justin] Pritchard reports that experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control (NIOSH) and the National Safety Council are skeptical whether any improvements can be credited to OSHA's recent outreach initiative:
Workplace safety experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control and the National Safety Council, a nonprofit public service organization, said no research substantiates a link between OSHA's fledgling outreach and the drop in Mexican worker deaths.

"It's not something that you throw a small amount of money at and issue some pamphlets and you're going to see dramatic changes," said David Richardson, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor of epidemiology who tracks worker deaths in the South. "It's a slow battle."
So why the decline in Mexican worker deaths in 2002?
According to work safety specialists, statisticians and even some federal outreach workers, there's no evidence any one effort is responsible for the improvement in 2002. Possible factors include the economic recession that followed the September 2001 terror attacks and changes in immigration and border security. Mexican-born workers have stayed longer in the United States, gaining experience and perhaps decreasing their willingness to take risks.

"It's good that they're doing outreach," says Dr. Sherry Baron, a lead CDC researcher on immigrant workers. However, "a change in one year, it's hard to conclude anything. Part of it is, we need more time."
Finally, Henshaw pleaded for feedback from the attendees:
We need to hear new ideas and to explore best practices for reaching Hispanic workers. We want to listen to others who can suggest additional strategies.
Which, again, is ironic, considering that those unions and community groups that are doing the most innovative work were not included in the planning or even invited.

It's all too bad. The Department of Labor and OSHA took the first step in recognizing the seriousness of the issue, but failed to follow through with a conference that could have brought together the nation's leading activists to help develop a national strategy that could have made real progress in addressing the problem -- and provided OSHA with something worth listening to. OSHA didn't need a summit, it needed the opposite -- some time with the grass roots.

Instead, we get a one-day, talking head, election year promotional opportunity for the Bush campaign.

What a waste.