Working conditions for Latino and immigrant workers have contributed to a rise in fatal work injuries, while on-the-job deaths dropped for every other group of American workers, according to preliminary 2013 figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Deaths among Latinos rose 7% to 797, the highest total since 2008. (These numbers are usually revised upwards as more reports come in.) Fatal injuries dropped 6% among non-Hispanic white workers, 15% among non-Hispanic black workers, and 22% among non-Hispanic Asian workers. Of the 845 injuries involving foreign-born workers in 2013, 42% involved those born in Mexico.
Nadia Marin-Molina, a leader on the issue of worker rights for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), said many Latinos and immigrants work in industries that are more dangerous, like construction. The BLS backs this up, with 33% of workers in construction and natural resource extraction being Latinos. This figure has jumped nearly 10% in the last decade.
That's why Marin-Molina said more resources need to be dedicated to health and safety enforcement, noting that an ACLU study found it would take the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 139 years to visit every workplace in America. These shortcomings, she says, put Latinos and immigrants in danger.
"The kinds of hazards our members tend to see — if you work in a construction site, sometimes you're working without the most basic health and safety equipment," she said. "Things like not having harnesses while working at great heights, not having hard hats or having old equipment. You might have a hard hat but it's really old or broken."
Marin-Molina added that workers can breathe in dangerous dust with chemicals like silica, which was deemed a human lung carcinogen by OSHA.
"Employers don't provide masks or respirators. Workers will go to the 99-cent store, but those types of masks don't do anything. Or they wrap tissues around their face," she said. "The worker is not supposed to do that, the employer is supposed to do that. They don't worry OSHA is going to appear, it's not part of the reality."
Concerning foreign-born workers, Marin-Molina said the issue of immigration status is a huge determinant in whether workers are willing to stand up to their employer over dangerous conditions.
"With workers who are undocumented, employers use that as a tool against them to stop them from being able to speak out in any way," she said. "But workers, documented or not, are viewed as expendable by contractors in these industries."
More Latino workers died in 2013 than any other year on record, up from the all-time low of 707 in 2010. During this same time period overall deaths dropped from 4,690 to 4,405, an all-time low.