NSC Report: Administration Grapples With Hispanic Safety Issues

The growing problem of ensuring the safety of Hispanic workers developed into a major theme of this year

This is the second year NSC held its Hispanic Forum at the conference, an effort comprised of 16 technical sessions addressing the safety and health needs of the Hispanic community throughout the Americas.

While the Hispanic forum was being held inside the San Diego Convention Center, there were protestors outside with masking tape over their mouths. The protestors complained that Hispanic workers were being excluded from "three days of secret government meetings" being held to settle a NAFTA dispute over alleged health and safety violations filed by workers and advocates. The complaint centers on conditions at the Autotrim/Customtrim plants in Matamoros and Valle Hermoso, Mexico.

In a sign of the importance the Bush administration attaches to Hispanic worker safety, it sent two of its highest ranking safety officials to attend the opening session of the Hispanic forum - OSHA Administrator John Henshaw and John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In addition, John Miles, OSHA's Region 6 regional administrator, was one of the panelists at the opening session.

One point made repeatedly by safety experts at this year's NSC Congress is that although overall workplace fatalities are trending down, the numbers are headed in the opposite direction for Hispanic workers, who are a rapidly growing component of the U.S. workforce. Nowhere is this situation clearer than in OSHA's Region 6, which includes Texas.

"In 2000, 61 percent of the occupational fatalities in region 6 were Hispanic workers," said Miles. He explained that most of these deaths came in the construction industry, where Hispanic workers do much of the most hazardous work. Nationally, the rise in Hispanic workplace fatalities last year was largely due to the agricultural sector, but fatal falls for Hispanic workers were up sharply, and the bulk of these are in the construction industry.

Miles then outlined a broad range of outreach, partnership and compliance assistance initiatives OSHA is taking to address the problem of Hispanic safety. Miles did not mention any special enforcement actions OSHA is taking to address Hispanic safety.

In a press conference after the opening session of the Hispanic forum, Henshaw was asked repeatedly why worker representatives had been excluded from the "Binational Working Group on Occupational Safety and Health" appointed to resolve the complaints under the NAFTA accord.

"This is a working meeting and we don't need a lot of distractions and rhetoric," replied Henshaw. "We're here to work and resolve issues."

He said representatives from Canada had been added to the meeting and that it would address not just the original complaint, but a range of institutional issues affecting occupational safety and health under NAFTA.

"You'll see action on this, and you can hold us accountable," Henshaw added.

When asked what NIOSH was doing to improve the safety and health of Hispanic workers, Howard said the primary research goal in this area is determining what types of worker training are the most effective.

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