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Mexican-Born Workers More Likely to Die on Job

Risky work, compliant attitude and language barrier contribute to the trend, AP study shows.

March 14, 2004|Justin Pritchard | Associated Press Writer

The jobs that lure Mexican workers to the United States are killing them in a worsening epidemic that claims a victim a day, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Although Mexicans often take the most hazardous jobs, they are more likely than others to be killed even when doing similarly risky work.

The death rates are greatest in several Southern and Western states, where a Mexican worker is four times more likely to die than the average U.S.-born worker.

The accidental deaths are almost always preventable and often gruesome: Workers are impaled, shredded in machinery, buried alive. Some are just teens.

For the first such study of Mexican worker deaths in the United States, the AP talked with scores of workers, employers and government officials, and analyzed years of federal safety and population statistics.

Among the findings:

* Mexican death rates are rising even as the U.S. workplace grows safer overall. In the mid-1990s, Mexicans were about 30% more likely to die than native-born workers; now they are about 80% more likely.

* Deaths among Mexican workers in the United States increased faster than their population. Between 1996 and 2002, as the number of Mexican workers grew by about half, from 4 million to 6 million, the number of deaths rose by about two-thirds, from 241 to 387. Deaths peaked at 420 in 2001.

* Although their odds of dying in the Southeast and parts of the West are far greater than the U.S. average, the fatalities occurred across the country: Mexicans died cutting North Carolina tobacco and dealing with Nebraska beef, felling trees in Colorado and welding a balcony in Florida, trimming grass at a Las Vegas golf course and falling from scaffolding in Georgia.

* Even compared to other immigrants, what's happening to Mexicans is exceptional in scope and scale. Mexicans are nearly twice as likely as the rest of the immigrant population to die at work.

Why is all this happening?

Public safety officials and workers themselves say the answer comes down to this: Mexicans are hired to work cheap and ask few questions.

They may be thrown into jobs without training or safety equipment. Their objections may remain unspoken if they know no English or are in the U.S. illegally. And their work culture and Third World safety expectations don't discourage risk-taking.

Federal and state safety agencies have started to recognize the problem. But they have limited resources -- only a few Spanish-speaking investigators work in regions with hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals -- and often can't reach the most vulnerable Mexican workers.

President Bush's recent proposal to grant illegal immigrants temporary legal protections energized the national immigration debate. Yet in these discussions, job safety has been an afterthought. Meanwhile, Mexicans continue to die on the job.

*

Eighteen-year-old Carlos Huerta fell to his death as he built federal low-income housing in North Carolina. His bosses ignored basic work-safety rules, according to state inspectors, when they put him in a trash container that wasn't secured to the raised prongs of a forklift. It soon toppled.

In 2002, the year Huerta was killed, more Mexicans died in construction than any other industry -- and more died from fatal falls than any other type of accident.

A year ago in South Carolina, brothers Rigouerto and Moses Xaca Sandoval died building a suburban high school that, at 15 and 16, they might have attended. They were buried in a trench when walls of sandy soil collapsed.

The United States offered the three teens wages 10 times higher than they could have earned in Mexico. They offered their employers cheap, pliant labor. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the employers $50,475 for safety violations that led to the deaths.

Accidents like these suggest that employers assign Mexicans to the most glaringly perilous tasks, says Susan Feldmann, who fields calls from Spanish-speaking workers for an institute within the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They're considered disposable," she said.

But employers are not always at fault, some safety officials say.

Although he was trained and wearing required safety gear, Jesus Soto Carbajal severed his jugular vein with a carving knife in a Nebraska meatpacking plant. The blade punctured his chest just above the protective metal mesh.

Federal safety officials didn't fine the employer, although they did recommend fundamental changes in the work routine. A plant spokesman says that since the accident in 2000, workers wear larger protective tunics.

Mexican worker deaths were also concentrated in agriculture.

When Urbano Ramirez suffered a nosebleed picking tobacco in North Carolina, his supervisor told him to rest in the shade. Ramirez's body was found 10 days later. A medical examiner said he died of unknown natural causes. The body was too decomposed for a definitive finding, but his brother suspects heatstroke.

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