Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Homicide: Leading Cause Of Workplace Death For Immigrants

Take a walk or ride through any big city in the United States and you'll find that most of the workers in the small retail food and convenience stores, and most taxi drivers are immigrants. That's where they work when they first come to this country, and increasingly, that's where they die.

Chicago Tribune reporters Stephen Franklin and Darnell Little have written another excellent article in their series on Throwaway Lives about immigrants in the United States. This one is about workplace homicide, the leading cause of death for foreign born workers. Take a look at any Weekly Toll, the Confined Space list of workplace death. There are always a shockingly high number of retail store homicides, usually of immigrant workers.

It's tragic, and, contrary to what many people think, it's preventable:

A Tribune analysis shows that in 2005, when foreign-born workers made up 15 percent of the nation's workforce, 188 were murdered on the job, accounting for more than a third of the 564 workplace homicides, the highest ratio since the government began keeping track in 1992.

Much of this loss of life can be avoided with measures that are both well-known and not costly, experts say. But protecting cab drivers and store clerks hasn't been as big a priority as saving lives on the factory floor, they add.

"This is a terrible thing and it is fixable," says Rosemary Sokas, a workplace safety expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former official at the research arm of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A $500 plastic shield that separates taxi drivers from passengers can save countless drivers' lives, say experts like Sokas.

Between 1992 and 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available, 3,040 foreign-born workers were murdered on the job, according to government figures. Most of the victims were Mexicans, but the workplace homicide rates were the highest among immigrants from India, Cuba, Korea and Vietnam.
In 1998, OSHA published guidelines for late night retail workers, that included such recommendations as physical barriers (such as bulletproof enclosures), pass-through windows in late night retail, or deep service counters, alarm systems and panic buttons, elevated vantage points, clear visibility of service and cash register areas, bright and effective lighting, adequate staffing, arranging furniture to prevent entrapment and cash-handling controls, such as using drop safes.

Unfortunately, OSHA does not cite employes for not following the guidelines. In fact, OSHA rarely even investigates workplace homicides, especially in retail establishments. Large corporate chains generally follow the guidance, but not other stores.

Dr. Linda Degutis, a professor of emergency medicine at Yale University, is
a leader of the American Public Health Association, which, along with other
safety groups, has urged the federal government to take steps to try to curtail
such violence.

They want OSHA to issue a regulation laying out basic protections for these workers. If the federal government won't, then they say cities and states should step in. So, too, businesses should shoulder some of the burden, safety groups say.

"There are ways we can at least make a start," says Degutis. "Maybe we can't decrease everything, but maybe we can decrease the toll."

But getting the federal government and states to act and businesses to comply has not been easy.

Amid opposition from the retail industry, which complained about the potential paperwork and governmental intrusion, OSHA in the 1990s mulled a proposed regulation that applied to late-night workers at retail stores and cabs. Finally, the regulatory agency came up with a voluntary guideline in 1998 for late-night stores.

Charles Jeffers (sic), OSHA's director from 1997 to 2000, recalled that he didn't think the agency would be able to police grocery stores and taxi stands to see if they adhered to the regulation. But he also felt the problem couldn't be ignored.

"When we first got into this, there was a great outcry from the industry that there was nothing we could do. I just don't think it is acceptable to say the employee shouldering the risk is enough," he says.

Three states, Washington, New Mexico and Florida have passed laws addressing violence in retail stores, but they face fierce industry resistance:

In two of the three states with regulations for retail stores, industry groups challenged the laws. They lost their challenges in Florida, and a court battle over a 2004 law in New Mexico is not yet resolved. Washington is the other state with a law meant to protect retail store workers.

The logic they use in opposing the laws is remarkable:

"If it [the law]were necessary, every state would have it," says Ruben Baca, of the New Mexico Petroleum Marketers Association, which is fighting the 2004 law. "There are violent people out there, and what they need to do is put violent people away."

Well, first, if it wasn't for all the opposition from associations like yours, every state probably would have such laws, or better yet, a national OSHA standard. Second, sure we should put the bad guys away, but in the meantime, should we also take all the locks off the doors?


Meanwhile, for cab drivers, a fact sheet suggesting bullet proof shields and cameras was all that OSHA has issued addressing violence. Some cities have adopted those recommendations.

Since 1998, for example, Chicago's 13,000 drivers of company-owned cabs have been required to have shields.

Now Chicago officials are finalizing a regulation that would allow drivers to replace the bullet-resistant shields with cameras, a move that probably would be well-received by drivers who have complained about the shields.

"Drivers generally don't have the shield closed because the customers hate it," says Jack Nichols, a veteran manager at Flash Cab Co. But at classes for the drivers, which are mandatory, Nichols often skips talking about safety.
In addition to being the leading cause of death for foreign born workers, workplace homicide has continuously been the second or third leading cause of workplace death for all workers nationwide. There's a myth that nothing can be done about it, and there's an assumption that even if something can be done about it, it's either not OSHA's job or there's no way, given its current resources, that OSHA can do anything about it.

It's an assumption that we need to change. Good work was done on the issue in the 1990's, and regardless of resistance from the retail industry associations, it's work that needs to be done again if OSHA is going to be serious about its mission to make all workplaces safer, whether you're working on a drill press, digging trench, building a house -- or slinging hot dogs or driving a taxi.

Related Stories

Workplace Violence: What It Mostly Is, What It Mostly Isn't, June 26, 2006
Workplace Fatalities That OSHA Ignores, October 1, 2005
New Mexico Petroleum Marketers Seek To Overturn Workplace Violence Standard, August 16, 2005
New Mexico Issues Late Night Convenience Store Violence Standard, February 1, 2005
APHA Calls for OSHA Workplace Violence Standard, January 6, 2005
Cabdriver Shot. A "Freak" Thing?, November 29, 2004
What's Henshaw Got Against A Little Violence?, November 15, 2004
Immigrants & Teens: Frontline Soldiers in the War Against Retail Crime? July 28, 2004
Workplace Violence: Fashionable vs. Unfashionable, July 18, 2004
What OSHA Investigates: Not the two biggest killers of American Workers, April 15, 2004
Seattle Cab Drivers Stage Work Stoppage Over Safety, February 12, 2004
Minneapolis Cab Driver Action Update, August 19, 2003
Minneapolis Cab Company Agrees to Put Cameras in Cabs, August 13, 2003
Minneapolis Taxi drivers call for one-day walkout over health and safety conditions, August 11, 2003