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COLUMN ONE : Dangers of Life on the Line : Deaths and injuries among Latinos in L.A. County factories raise concerns about the way the safety system works--or doesn't. A culture gap and lax enforcement are blamed.

SWEAT AND BLOOD. Latinos in the factories. First in a series

September 05, 1993|DAVID FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a meatpacking plant in Pico Rivera, a Latino immigrant opens a hamburger grinder to clean it and is pulled inside and crushed to death. A safety switch designed to automatically shut off the machine had been broken for months.

Amid the steam and heat of a fabric-dyeing factory in Compton, a vat of boiling, caustic solution blows open, burning an undocumented Mexican worker over 90% of his body. Rather than call an ambulance, his supervisor drives him to a walk-in clinic. He finally arrives at a hospital three hours later.

Inside a frozen food factory in San Fernando, a Mexican worker tries to separate pizza pies whizzing past on a conveyor belt and loses two fingers in a wrapping machine. Cleaning the same machine several months later, another Latino also loses fingers. Contrary to law, the company never notifies state safety officials of either accident.

Such is the way of life, and sometimes death, for Latinos who make everything from auto parts to zippers in the nearly 20,000 manufacturing facilities in and around Los Angeles.

More than 875,000 manufacturing workers can be found in Los Angeles County--far more than in any other county in the United States. And nearly half are Latinos--far more than any other ethnic group.

Many are recent immigrants with little more than a grade-school education or overqualified professionals who have fled war-ravaged homelands. Eager to work, they take what they can get, toiling in anonymity behind the walls of towering industrial fortresses and back-street garages, alongside rail yards and freeways, and in graffiti-covered inner-city warehouses. Typically, they trade their labor for a minimum wage in places where the machinery pounds, the air reeks and people go home dirty at the end of their shifts.

Although their labors are essential to manufacturers and the local economy, the safety of Latinos is chronically neglected in ways that leave them particularly susceptible to death, traumatic injury and disability, The Times has found.

Although Latinos represent the largest segment of the manufacturing work force, they suffer death and injury at a much higher rate than other workers. The factories where they toil are seldom inspected by safety agencies. A variety of factors, including language and cultural differences, make Latino workers reluctant to complain about hazards on the job and particularly vulnerable to accidents.

Latinos make up 36% of Los Angeles County's overall labor force. They represent 44% of those in manufacturing, according to census figures. But they accounted for 67% of workers who lost their lives in manufacturing-related accidents between 1988 and 1992, an examination of coroner's records shows.

More Spanish-surnamed factory workers were killed in the county in the last two years than anywhere in the United States, according to federal records.

Few of their deaths made the evening news or morning papers:

One woman was doused head to toe with boiling oil when a machine that laminates menus exploded; a man drowned in a glue vat, and another was struck in the head by a 50-pound chunk of flying metal while tooling a chrome wheel. Some were electrocuted; several were crushed by hydraulic presses or pulled into the gears of other powerful machines.

Latino workers also suffer a disproportionate number of injuries. Of more than 300 serious accidents in the county investigated by state safety officials from 1991 to 1992, three in four victims were Spanish-surnamed, records indicate.

Dozens of Latino factory laborers have been badly burned. Scores have had fingers amputated or bones broken. Many more have permanent hearing loss, or continue to work with hazardous materials that have left them in chronic ill health and, in some cases, unable to bear children.

Meanwhile, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of less severe injuries never come to the attention of authorities because employers are not required to report them.

A six-month Times study of Latinos in manufacturing found that:

* Cal/OSHA, the state agency whose task is protecting Latinos and other workers, is so underfunded and understaffed that it does little to prevent accidents. Rarely do inspectors visit factories unless there already has been a death or serious injury on the job. Last year, records show, only about 4% of factories were inspected in Cal/OSHA's Los Angeles administrative region, which encompasses Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

When accidents occur, Cal/OSHA has so few Spanish-speaking inspectors based in the Los Angeles area that they must frequently rely on the companies they are investigating to provide translators, according to sources in the agency.

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