OSHA's Hispanic Worker Initiative: Lots of Bark, No Bite?

While OSHA touts its new Hispanic Worker Initiative, worker advocates call the agency's lack of enforcement efforts targeted at workplaces where Hispanic workers are being injured as "outrageous."

At the Feb. 21 press conference held to introduce the Labor Department''s new initiatives to protect Hispanic workers, Secretary Elaine Chao repeatedly and passionately affirmed her personal commitment to the programs.

Referring to the fact that she herself is an immigrant from Taiwan, Chao said she understood the difficulties Hispanic workers have in joining the American mainstream.

"It''s outrageous," countered Robyn Robbins, referring to the lack of any new OSHA enforcement efforts targeted at workplaces where it is known Hispanic workers are being hurt, maimed and killed at a higher rate than other Americans. Robbins is the assistant director of occupational safety and health for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Flanked by the heads of three major department agencies charged with pursuing the initiatives, including OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, Chao outlined a host of programs intended to protect the well being of the over 14.5 million Hispanic workers in the country.

Chao and Henshaw spoke about a number of occupational safety and health problems confronting Spanish-speaking workers:

  • Hispanics have a 14 percent fatality rate in the workplace, even though they make up only 11 percent of the workforce;
  • In 2000, the fatality rate for Hispanic employees climbed by more than 11 percent, while death rates of all other groups declined, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); and
  • Overall fatalities in the construction industry dropped three percent for the first time since 1996, while deaths among Hispanic workers rose 22 percent.

"These numbers are headed in the wrong direction," said Henshaw. "And that must change."

OSHA hopes that a variety of voluntary outreach efforts such as new training, partnerships, compliance assistance, and education initiatives will turn the statistics around. The agency''s initiatives include:

  • A new OSHA Spanish Web page, with information on worker and employer rights and responsibilities, including how Spanish-speaking workers can file complaints;
  • A best practices conference to enable employers to share information about strategies that have worked to reduce injuries and illnesses for non-English speaking employees; and
  • Training grants to be awarded later this year that will focus on under-served populations, such as Spanish-speaking workers.

During the question-and-answer period, a reporter asked Henshaw if OSHA is planning any new targeted enforcement efforts to address the growing number of Hispanic workers dying in the construction industry.

Henshaw replied that the BLS data he cited earlier was not reliable, because the definition of "non-English speaking or Hispanic is not necessarily consistent." He said OSHA is revising the format of documents it uses in its investigations to determine if language or culture was a barrier and a cause of the accident.

It has been widely reported that many deaths of Hispanic workers are not recorded, in part because so many are undocumented aliens.

Another reporter asked if OSHA was considering increasing the penalties, which average around $1,000, levied against employers for failing to report workplace fatalities.

"I''m not sure penalties are the answer," replied Henshaw.

A third reporter asked if OSHA would target enforcement efforts on the growing problems faced by Hispanics working in high-hazard meat packing facilities.

Henshaw replied that the agency would continue to focus on high hazard industries, but said there were no special plans to address Hispanics in meat processing plants.

Robbins said that a big problem faced by Hispanic workers in her union is that many are cleaning up meat grinders in the middle of the night with little or no supervision. "These machines are also grinding up workers - we are seeing many amputations and even fatalities," she said.

The UFCW has been talking to OSHA about doing targeted nighttime inspections of these facilities. "Words have been put to this, but we have seen no action," she said. "It''s outrageous for OSHA to launch an Hispanic worker initiative without it."

Henshaw said the success or failure of his initiative would be determined by whether it reduces fatality, injury and illness rates for Hispanic workers.

The OSHA administrator, like Chao, vowed his commitment to protecting Hispanic workers. To demonstrate how important he takes the safety of Hispanic workers, Henshaw quoted an old Spanish proverb that says that talking about bulls is far different from being in the bullring.

Henshaw''s translation: "We must do more than talk about this problem."

by James Nash

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