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Labor Report Criticizes Workplace Protection Plan

Safety: On-the-job fatalities climb for Latino workers, despite an overall decline.

April 25, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade-long decline in the rate of repetitive-motion workplace injuries slowed to a near-standstill in 2000 and even climbed in some states, including California, according to an analysis of federal data by the AFL-CIO.

The national labor federation's annual report on workplace injuries, to be released today, also noted that although job fatalities declined overall, they increased among Latino workers. The on-the-job fatality rate in 2000 for Latinos was 5.6 per 100,000, the highest in at least five years.

The report was highly critical of the Bush administration's record on worker protection, particularly its repeal of a short-lived ergonomic standard that recently was replaced with voluntary compliance guidelines.

"The Bush regulatory agenda makes clear that the administration is abandoning or delaying action on many important worker protection measures by withdrawing and halting action of dozens of standards," the report said. It also noted that the proposed 2003 calls for cuts in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget.

An administration spokeswoman noted, however, that the trends cited in the AFL-CIO report predate President Bush's inauguration.

Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao last month acknowledged that there was mixed news in the latest batch of injury and illness statistics, which had "edged down" overall despite increases for certain workers, including truck drivers, laborers and nursing aides.

She also said more work was needed to reduce repetitive-motion injuries and expressed hope that the administration's new ergonomics plan would help pull rates down further.

The administration also acknowledged high fatality rates for Latino workers. In testimony to the Senate, Assistant Secretary of Labor John Henshaw, who directs OSHA, said in February that the disproportionate share of fatalities is due largely to Latino workers being concentrated in hazardous industries, such as construction.

At the time, Henshaw announced several initiatives, including the development of Spanish-language materials, to address the problem.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national injury and illness rate fell slightly, from 6.3 per 100 workers in 1999 to 6.1 per 100 workers in 2000.

However, Peg Seminario, who directs the worker safety program for the AFL-CIO and was the chief author of the report, said her analysis of the numbers reveals a troubling trend.

"For some groups of workers, things are getting worse," she said.

In California, for example, repetitive-motion injuries increased by a substantial margin.

According to the union report, in California, musculoskeletal disorders--such as strains, back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome--went from 46.1 incidents per 10,000 workers in 1999 to 54.3 incidents per 10,000 workers in 2000.

Spokesman Dean Fryer of the state Department of Industrial Relations said the cause of increase was not clear, but it stem could in part from increased reporting.

As another factor, the AFL-CIO report cited competitive forces that have led to longer hours and increases in the pace of work, along with changes in technology and work processes associated with higher incidents of repetitive stress and strain.

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