Overall workplace deaths in North Carolina rose to 234 last year, up 12 fatalities from the year before and confirming concerns among state officials who worried that Hispanics appeared more vulnerable to serious hazards than the rest of the workforce.
Hispanics lost 22 lives while working in 2000, or about 9 percent of the 234 fatalities. Hispanics the year before lost 12 workers, or about 5 percent of the 222 fatalities in 1999.
"We''ve taken some steps to improve safety for Hispanic workers, but we have to do more," North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry said. "We''re responsible for the health and safety of over 3.8 million workers and over 200,000 workplaces. I want every hard-working person in this state to make it home safely after work. That''s my first priority."
Berry, the first woman elected labor commissioner in state history, took office in January and quickly ordered the creation of a Hispanic task force in the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL).
The task force so far has identified the language barrier and cultural gap as two factors that play important roles in many of the injuries and fatalities suffered by the Spanish-language population in North Carolina. Hispanics are now estimated to represent a workforce of about 182,000 in the state.
Across-the-board figures show that traffic accidents, homicides and suicides accounted for 140 deaths, or about 60 percent of the fatalities.
Transportation incidents, which include vehicle accidents, accounted for 101 fatalities, or 43 percent of the total.
Homicides accounted for another 35 workplace deaths, with an additional four suicides.
The utilities and transportation industry lost 40 employees in work-related deaths; manufacturing lost 32; agriculture, forestry and fishing lost 27; retail trade lost 26; and the services sector lost 26.
"There are fatalities that are outside our regulatory authority," Berry said. "And we want to concentrate our resources in areas where the Labor Department can have an impact, particularly high-risk areas."
Berry said NCDOL plans several initiatives that target specific work groups and geographical areas with high fatality rates.
Berry said the department is making plans to purchase a mobile training unit to help businesses with free safety training. The department is also planning to beef up its educational outreach efforts.
by Virginia Foran