Latino Immigrants Working Without PPE in Gulf Coast

Many Hispanic day laborers have flocked to the Gulf Coast to pick up reconstruction and cleanup jobs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but a new report finds that many of these workers face a host of work-related hazards, with no personal protective equipment (PPE) available.

Exposure to mold, toxic materials and body fluids from decomposing corpses were just some of the perils Latino immigrant workers faced while working in the Gulf Coast area, according to the report "Risk Amid Recovery: Occupational health and Safety of Latino Immigrant Workers in the Aftermath of the Gulf Coast Hurricanes," which was published by the University of California Los Angeles Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH) and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in June.

Field researcher and report co-author Tomas Aguilar obtained data by conducting interviews with 53 immigrant workers and 28 community, union, church and relief workers all along the Gulf Coast from December 2005 through February 2006. Aguilar said that conducting the interviews and visiting workers at their jobsites made it clear that the health and safety of these workers was in jeopardy.

"Like other workers and returning residents, Latino workers confronted a variety of hazards… most frequently mentioned of these was mold," he wrote. "Most workers, however, received neither health and safety training nor protective equipment.

Living Conditions, Language Exacerbate Problem

Many workers complained of respiratory, skin and other health problems incurred on the job. For example, one worker ended up with a skin infection after a rotting corpse fell apart in his hands, coating him with bodily fluids.

Several of the laborers' health ailments are exacerbated by unsanitary living conditions, according to Aguilar. Workers went "home" to an abandoned car, a shelter or a rain-soaked tent pitched in a muddy field. Since many don't have access to a laundry facility, many workers who have not been provided with protective clothing sleep in their contaminated clothes, he said.

In addition, language differences and literacy issues also present hurdles for Spanish-speaking workers, the report said.

Aguilar noted there was potential to change the unsafe working conditions Latino laborers were exposed to, but as of right now, things are difficult.

"While many organizations are trying to meet some of the needs of these workers, there remains an overall lack of resources, making it difficult, if not impossible, to provide safety equipment and training to immigrant workers," he said.

Report Makes Recommendations

In order to address workers' needs as comprehensively as possible, the report urged collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) grantees and local organizations to assist workers with housing, medical care and other basic needs, as well as provide health and safety education for residents who need protection themselves and employee day laborers. Also, the report recommends assisting workers in recovering unpaid wages from contractors and providing them with protective equipment for workers.

Other recommendations include:

  • Producing radio spots (with workers' stories, music and public service announcements).
  • Targeting workers through outreach efforts that incorporated posters, fliers, fact sheets and "fotonovelas."
  • Providing innovative training using visuals, role plays and other activities where workers congregate for jobs, where they live and at social events such as organized soccer matches,
  • Providing PPE directly to workers with education about its proper use.
  • Holding contractors responsible for providing adequate health and safety training and protection for hired workers.
  • Supporting the creation of a workers' center that would provide a permanent space where low-income Latino immigrant workers can negotiate better working conditions and salary.
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