Immigrant workers face ‘an epidemic of workplace injury and death’ says AFL-CIO report

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‘TODAY immigrant workers in this country face an epidemic of workplace injury and death,’ stated the Afl-Cio trade union federation yesterday.

In fact, immigrant workers are at far greater risk of being killed or injured on the job than native-born workers. Overall, workplace fatalities among foreign born workers increased by 46 per cent between 1992 and 2002.

Fatalities among Hispanic workers increased by 58 per cent over the same period.

Foreign-born workers are likely to toil in high-risk occupations, work in the unregulated, ‘informal’ economy and often fear reporting workplace injuries. Many are not aware of their legal rights to safety and health on the job and to workers’ compensation if they are injured.

The AFL-CIO report, ‘Immigrant Workers at Risk: The Urgent Need for Improved Workplace Safety and Health Policies and Programmes’, examines how these factors contribute to the alarming rates of injury and death on the job among immigrants and discusses the detrimental economic effects of such workplace injuries and deaths across society.

Among the report’s key findings are that although the share of foreign-born employment increased by 22 per cent between 1996 and 2000, the share of fatal occupational injuries for this population increased by 43 per cent.

Fatal work injuries in six states accounted for 64 per cent of all fatalities for foreign-born workers between 1996 and 2001.

The states are California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

Nearly one in four fatally injured foreign-born workers was employed in the construction industry.

Less than one-third of the costs of occupational illnesses and injuries are paid for by employer funded workers’ compensation – with taxpayers picking up nearly 20 per cent of the tab through Medicaid and Medicare.

Injured workers and their families pay the largest share.

While much needs to be done to improve the working lives of immigrants, ‘Immigrant Workers at Risk’ includes examples of successful outreach by unions and community groups to educate immigrant workers on worksite hazards and provide them with information about their legal rights on the job.

The report also includes examples of current efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to educate foreign-born workers, and notes the areas in which OSHA must improve to protect more successfully immigrant worker safety and health.

The report concludes with 13 recommended actions that significantly would improve safety and health protections for immigrant workers.

One of the cases featuring in the report is the work experiences of Jose Sauceda.

Jose worked on a power saw, cutting pork loins at Smithfield Packing – the world’s largest hog processing plant – in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

The supervisors were hard on the workers, especially the immigrants who didn’t speak English. His supervisor pushed the workers to work faster and faster to get out the product.

To meet his supervisor’s demands, José rushed through his work, at one point catching his hand in a saw as he reached for a loin. José required surgery to insert pins in his finger.

Now, his finger is no longer straight and he has difficulty using his hand.

He returned to the plant but it was difficult. He couldn’t keep up with the line speed. After a while, the company fired him, saying his immigration papers were not valid.

Since then, José tried to work for the contractor who cleans the Smithfield plant at night but he had difficulty holding onto the hose. He now tries to get jobs working for himself.

‘This work that we do here in the US is really hard and the companies take advantage of us as immigrants who don’t speak English and who don’t know our rights. They intimidate us to keep us in line and fire us when they want to,’ says Jose.

The Afl-Cio concludes that: ‘Immigrant workers must have the same safety and health protections as native-born workers. The existing barriers need to be removed so immigrant workers are aware of their rights and are free to exercise them without fear of retaliation.

‘For that to happen, the following actions must occur:

• ‘Codify OSHA policy so that the agency does not refer cases involving undocumented workers to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

• ‘Ensure through interagency agreement or legislation that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency will not represent itself as OSHA.

• ‘Strengthen whistle-blower and anti-retaliation provisions to protect all workers, regardless of their immigration status, who exercise job safety rights and raise job safety concerns.

• ‘Enhance outreach, training and education programs for immigrant and Hispanic workers to inform them of job safety rights, job hazards and available protections.

• ‘Require OSHA to provide materials, publications and information in the primary languages of major immigrant worker populations.

• ‘Ensure OSHA requires employers to provide safety and health training in a language understood by their employees.

• ‘Expand language capabilities of OSHA inspectors and other personnel to facilitate communication with and outreach to immigrant workers.

• ‘Require a targeted enforcement program for industries, employers and operations when immigrant workers are at high risk of injury or illness.

• ‘Require OSHA to develop local emphasis programs when immigrant workers are at high risk of injury or illness.

• ‘Strengthen OSHA criminal and civil penalties.

• ‘Require OSHA to issue a final standard mandating that employers must pay for personal protective equipment required by OSHA standards.

• ‘Ensure all workers have access to workers’ compensation when injured on the job, regardless of immigration status, and that workers are not penalised for filing workers’ compensation claims.

• ‘Mandate that NIOSH expand research programs to address the safety and health problems of immigrant and Hispanic workers.’