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Report says workplace death rate higher among Latinos

A migrant worker uses slips of paper to keep track of how many boxes of strawberries he has picked at a farm north of Santa Maria, Calif.
Grant Slater/KPCC
A migrant worker at a strawberry farm north of Santa Maria.

The rate of workplace death in the U.S. was unchanged in 2015 from the previous year, but there was an increase in the number of Latinos who died on the job, according to an annual analysis of federal data by the AFL-CIO.

The report found 4,836 workplace fatalities nationwide, a rate of 3.4 people per 100,000. Among Latinos, the rate was nearly 20 percent higher: 4.0 per 100,000 people.

Deaths among Latino workers increased from 804 in 2014 to 903 in 2015. Of those, 605 were foreign-born, which includes those with legal status and those in the country illegally.

"Latino workers often work in the dirtiest jobs in the most dangerous industries," said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's director of occupational safety and health. "There’s a high concentration of Latinos working in agriculture. A high concentration of Latinos working in construction, and these have typically been very hazardous industries with high fatality rates." 

Seminario added that Latinos, particularly those who are in the U.S. illegally, are more vulnerable to abuse, discrimination and retaliation by their employers, which can result in workers not reporting safety violations.

The report compiles the most recent federal data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows that overall, workplace deaths nationwide have declined dramatically since the early 1970s, when more than 14,000 people died on the job each year.  

The AFL-CIO credits the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 with turning the tables. By 2009, workplace deaths reached a low of 4,500 deaths nationwide, and has hovered under 5,000 each year since.

California has the fifth-lowest rate of workplace deaths in the country: 2.2 workers per 100,000.

Seminario credited California with having its own Occupational Safety and Health Administration which, she said, has set stronger standards than the federal government. 

Still, she said California could do more to fund workplace inspectors. The report says the state has 216 inspectors, and estimates it would take 181 years for Cal-OSHA to inspect each workplace once. (Most states scored poorly in this area; the AFL-CIO estimates that 40 states would need more than 100 years to complete this task.)

"California, like some of the other states and the federal government, has been having issues with staffing and funding and providing the kind of resources that are needed to provide the kind of oversight and attention to the vast safety and health problems that exist across the state," Seminario said. "There needs to be a greater focus and attention on high-risk workers."

The AFL-CIO criticizes the Trump administration's regulatory rollbacks, which the labor group says endanger the country's workers (workplace injury and death rates during the first year of the Trump Administration wont be known until 2019). Among the steps Trump has taken:

  • A presidential memorandum issued on Jan. 20 directing federal agencies to freeze the regulatory process and delay the effective date of final rules not yet in effect.
  • Executive Order 13771, which requires that for every new regulatory protection issued, two existing safeguards must be repealed.
  • Repeal of OSHA’s rule clarifying an employer’s obligation to keep accurate injury and illness records.
  • Repeal of a rule that would have required companies to disclose safety and health and labor violations in order to qualify for federal contracts.
  • Delay of the effective date of OSHA’s new beryllium standard and of the enforcement of OSHA’s silica standard in the construction industry.
  • Budget proposals to slash the Department of Labor’s budget by 21 percent, eliminate worker safety and health training programs, eliminate the Chemical Safety Board and cut the job safety research budget by $100 million.