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Few Safeguards Protect Workers From Poisons : Labor: Some Latinos toil unaware of dangers; others risk their health. Budget woes weaken official oversight.

SWEAT AND BLOOD: Latinos in the factories: Next: Cal/OSHA

September 06, 1993|DAVID FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each day, thousands of Latinos go to work in Los Angeles-area factories where they ingest toxic dust, expose their unprotected skin to dangerous chemicals and breathe noxious fumes that can destroy lungs and brain cells.

Some knowingly risk their health, so desperate are they to feed their families.

Many others toil in ignorance, not fully realizing that they are being exposed to materials that can kill or cripple them.

"There are easily thousands of workers in this county who are exposed to hundreds of thousands of times the allowable level of toxics, and the oversight is a fraction of what it should be," said Dr. Paul J. Papanek, chief of Los Angeles County's toxics epidemiology program. "There is no monitoring to speak of."

For years, Los Angeles County has violated a state law requiring that administrators maintain an industrial hygiene program staffed by at least 10 full-time health professionals to help guard the safety of Latinos and other laborers working with toxic materials. The county phased out the program more than 10 years ago as part of budget cutbacks, The Times found.

"We used to be an advocate for the underdog worker--the unskilled Hispanic who takes the jobs no one else will take and accepts conditions no one else will accept," said retired industrial hygienist Anastacio Medina, who worked for the defunct program. "These workers don't have an advocate any longer."

State legislators, facing continued budget woes, passed a law in July temporarily suspending the requirement that counties operate their own occupational health programs. The requirement is to be reinstated next July.

Cal/OSHA, the state's health and safety agency, is supposed to check workplaces for toxic hazards. Last year, records show, Cal/OSHA industrial hygienists in the agency's Los Angeles administrative region inspected 227 manufacturing facilities--about 1% of the total.

Thousands of industrial chemicals, heavy metals and other hazardous materials are used each day by Latino workers in Los Angeles-area factories but the only toxic substance that authorities monitor at present is lead, The Times has found.

Although Latinos make up one-third of Los Angeles County's work force, they account for about two-thirds of adult lead poisoning cases reported to health officials, records show.

Experts believe that other toxic substances may pose a greater health threat, but the prevalence of injury remains largely unknown. Little research has been done on the subject, and workers often do not realize they are jeopardizing their health.

"We've seen a marked increase in occupational asthma cases, particularly among Spanish-speaking patients, and very frequently, they are simply not informed about the materials they are using," said Dr. Phil Harber, a UCLA specialist in occupational and environmental medicine.

Amilcar Martinez rarely knew the names of the chemicals he handled during his 10 years working in poorly ventilated commercial printing plants around Los Angeles. Rarely, he said, did his employers issue him protective gloves or a mask.

The Salvadoran refugee developed a chronic cough that would last for months, he said. When he would blow his nose, the mucus would often be black. Sometimes, the skin on his hands and forearms would be bleached by the chemicals he handled.

After Martinez's hands began to shake uncontrollably in 1991, a doctor diagnosed the problem as overexposure to toxic substances. When he went back to work the next day, Martinez said, his employer told him he was too sick to continue and fired him. Martinez now has a desk job with a refugee organization helping fellow Central Americans fill out amnesty applications.

"People are just happy to get a job when they come here," Martinez said. "They don't really think of what (the toxic materials) could be doing to their bodies."

Even today, he said, he suffers from hypertension and his joints sometimes tingle inexplicably.

The printing shop where Martinez once worked underwent a management change after he left. His former employer could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Ashok Jain, County-USC Medical Center's expert on occupational health medicine, estimated that for each worker like Martinez who is found to have a job-related toxic exposure, at least 200 others may be similarly afflicted but do not seek help. Many victims, he said, convince themselves that their headaches, cramps, difficulty breathing or other afflictions are the results of a cold or flu, even when the symptoms are recurrent and last for months--or years.

Those who do see a doctor with job-related illnesses frequently end up being misdiagnosed, Jain said. A key reason, he and other experts believe, is that most U.S. physicians receive scant training in occupational medicine.

Of 127 medical schools responding to a 1988 survey by the American Assn. of Medical Colleges, only two reported that they require medical students to take a course in occupational health.

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