The unsung heroes of workplace safety

Filed under: Organizing Latino Immigrants for Social Justice |

By Cheryl Staats, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

In the midst of the uproar surrounding comprehensive immigration reform and the devastating new law in Arizona that seemingly legalizes racial profiling, immigrants and their advocates and organizers are shouldering the strains of these significant challenges.  While these battles are ongoing, one bright spot has recently emerged:  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) increased recognition of the workplace dangers that plague many Latinos, particularly immigrants, coupled with actions to attend to these labor issues.

Hilda Solis

On April 14th and 15th, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis convened the first-ever National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health & Safety in Houston, TX.  This conference sought to find ways to reduce worker injuries, illness, and deaths on the job.  The event’s explicit focus on proactive strategies is reflected in its Action Agenda:  “The Summit will develop a working agenda to prevent injury and death among Latino workers. It will showcase innovative partnerships, demonstrate successful education and training strategies, and develop effective enforcement and communication strategies.”  While assuring “the safety and health of all of America’s working men and women” is part of OSHA’s mission, this targeted focus on Latinos is a significant recognition of the unique challenges Latinos employed in low-wage industries such as construction, hospitality, meat processing, and agriculture face.

The data on Latino workplace injuries and deaths are startling.  In her conference keynote, Secretary Solis stated, “Every day in this country, more than 14 workers lose their lives in preventable workplace accidents – close to 100 every week.  The Latino community loses 14 workers every week.”  According to a report by the National Council of La Raza, Latinos have consistently had the highest occupational fatality rate compared to all other groups of workers for the last 15 years.  It’s not that Latinos as individuals are more prone to injuries than other workers; rather, they are disproportionately relegated to dangerous jobs.  For example, nearly 1 in 4 workers in the construction industry is a Latino immigrant, where hazards such as falls, electrical dangers, and being struck-by or caught-between equipment generate potentially dangerous working conditions.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in 2002, nearly 75% Hispanic workers killed in construction fatalities were foreign-born.

Given these distressing statistics, OSHA’s recognition of these concerns and proactive efforts to deliberately empower Latino workers with culturally and linguistically appropriate materials so that they can clearly comprehend and assert their rights when necessary –  regardless of immigration status – is certainly a step in the right direction.  OSHA’s efforts in this arena, however vital, are not enough to do it all, and even OSHA representatives acknowledge their office’s limitations.  Consistent monitoring of all workplaces for hazards is well beyond OSHA’s capacity.  The number of full-time OSHA employees has decreased, thus adding to each employee’s caseload.  A 2009 report by the National Council of La Raza states that each OSHA employee is now responsible for monitoring 4,057 workplaces; this number is nearly four times the caseload employees maintained in 1975.

According to Secretary Solis, “OSHA only has about 1,000 inspectors.  States running their own state plans have about the same number.  That means it would take more than 130 years to inspect every single one of the 8 million workplaces in this country just once.”  Clearly we need to continue to call for additional OSHA funding so the agency can increase its resources, maintain an adequately sized staff with a manageable caseload, and be readily available to act and follow-up on all workplace issues.

Given OSHA’s current capacity constraints, the agency’s aims can only be fully realized with the help of those on the ground – the individuals who work to support, organize, and empower immigrant workers to stand up for their rights and embrace OSHA’s pledge of assistance.

This task, however, is far from easy.  Despite the protections provided in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, many immigrant workers remain reluctant to pursue claims against their employers for violations of workplace safety laws, unjust wages, and other workers’ rights issues.  Employer bullying and silencing tactics often factor into this reluctance.  Reporting a workplace injury or filing an OSHA complaint sparks fears of being blacklisted, disciplined, or even fired.  The nature of unskilled manual labor makes workers easily replaceable, thus adding validity to these employer threats.  Finally, the sheer low-wage worker reality of needing money to put food on the table and pay for housing and other necessities makes many workers reticent to complain about working conditions or expose employer wrongdoing.

OSHA’s outreach to these vulnerable workers reflects an understanding of these struggles.  According to David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, “We want to give all workers a voice in the workplace, because a paycheck is not payment for silence.  It is not a license to endure any pain at any cost.”  OSHA’s outreach strategy features bilingual PSAs aimed at reinforcing this message.

OSHA Promotes Workplace Safety in New PSAs @ Yahoo! Video

Through these efforts, OSHA is seeking to build trust with Latino workers, wanting them to know that they can turn to OSHA for resources and to take action against employer wrongdoing regardless of their immigration status.  The fact that OSHA is a government agency, though, remains an obstacle to this open communication pathway OSHA encourages, as undocumented workers often eschew contact with government agencies for fear their immigration status will be exposed.  (See also: the Census.)

This is where the work of organizers, and community and religious groups becomes so critical.  Their view from the ground and ability to construct relationships with immigrant workers provide a vital link between OSHA’s national-level mandates and the realities of workers’ daily lives.  These individuals and groups that actively disseminate information, quell false rumors, and support workers who take action against unscrupulous employers are a crucial part of the success of OSHA’s outreach to Latino workers.

OSHA programs such as the Susan Harwood Training Grants exemplify this community connection by funding on-the-ground training that speaks to the needs of workers from various walks of life.  Partnering with community groups to educate immigrant workers also pressures unethical employers to abide by OSHA regulations rather than simply considering noncompliance fines part of the cost of doing business.  While OSHA sets it sights on passing the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067) to increase the penalties and fines associated with worker deaths and injuries, it is the unsung heroes on the ground who will continue to play a vital role bringing these mandates to life by encouraging immigrant workers to assert their OSHA-granted rights.

Photo by John D. Simmons


Cheryl Staats joined the staff of the Kirwan Institute in October 2007 as a Research Assistant.  She is a graduate of the University of Dayton with a B.A. in Sociology and Spanish, and she holds a M.A. in Sociology from The Ohio State University.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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