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Mexicans more likely to die on U.S. jobs
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
March 14, 2004
By Justin Pritchard
The jobs that lure Mexican workers to the United States are killing them in a
worsening epidemic that is now claiming a victim a day, an Associated Press
investigation has found.
Though 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 Western and Southern states, where a
Mexican worker is four times as likely to die as the average U.S.-born worker.
In Arizona, the annual death toll of Mexican workers has been increasing, but
because of the large Mexican-born population their death rates are lower than
most other states - though the rates are still well above the average for
These accidental deaths are almost always preventable and often gruesome:
Workers are impaled, shredded in machinery, buried alive. Some are 15 years old.
For the first such study of deaths of Mexican workers 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 percent more likely to die than
native-born workers; now they are 80 percent more likely.
° Deaths among Mexicans in the United States increased faster than their
population. 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.
° Though their odds of dying in the Southeast and parts of the West are far
greater than the U.S. average, fatalities occur everywhere: Mexicans died
cutting North Carolina tobacco and 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 cheaply, the fewer questions the better.
They may be thrown into jobs without training or safety equipment. Their
objections may be silent if they speak no English or are here illegally. And
their work culture and Third World safety expectations don't discourage
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
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 accident.
A year ago in South Carolina, two 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 the walls of sandy soil collapsed.
The United States offered these three teen-agers wages 10 times as high as in
Mexico. They offered their employers cheap, pliant labor. For safety violations
that led to these deaths, the federal Occupational Safety and Health
Administration has fined employers $50,475.
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
"They're considered disposable," she says.
But employers are not always at fault, some safety officials say.
Though 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, though 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 nose bleed picking North Carolina tobacco, his
supervisor prescribed shade rest. Ramirez's body was found 10 days later. A
medical examiner said he died of unknown natural causes, the body too decomposed
for a definitive finding.
Criminal charges are rare, fines more typical. One exception is a California
dairyman who faces charges of involuntary manslaughter after two of his workers
drowned in liquid cow manure.
Jose Alatorre was overcome by fumes from the fetid stew as he tried to fix a
pump at the bottom of a 30-foot concrete shaft. His partner died trying to save
Both men were full-time workers but, according to prosecutors, were given no
safety training and no safety equipment to deal with the predictably hazardous
The deaths received a burst of attention in early 2001, but 18 months later in
the same small town, a third Mexican-born worker died in the same way at another
The AP's investigation focused on 1996 through 2002, the most recent set of
worker death data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those were years
when the economic boom coaxed about 1 million Mexicans beyond the border states,
the government estimated.
During those years, the analysis showed, Mexicans were increasingly more likely
to die on the job than U.S. workers of any race.
The annual death rate for Mexicans increased to the point that about 1 in 16,000
workers died. Meanwhile, for the average U.S.-born worker, the rate steadily
decreased to about 1 in 28,000.
Mexicans now represent about 1 in 24 workers in the United States, but about 1
in 14 workplace deaths.
Workplace fatalities had distinct regional patterns:
California and Texas: These states, where generations of Mexicans have developed
strong support networks, still rank atop the annual number of Mexican worker
deaths - but their numbers have steadied or fallen recently.
West: Outside California, deaths in Western states increased from 41 to 58, and
death rates hovered well above the national average. Colorado and Washington
stood out with consistently high rates. In Arizona, 95 Mexicans were killed on
the job over that seven-year span, and the Mexican death rate averaged 1 in
South: In the block of states from Louisiana to Maryland, the Mexican death rate
averaged about 1 in 6,200 workers - four times that of native-born workers.
Total deaths more than tripled from 27 in 1996 to 94 in 2002 in the South
(excluding Texas), where some states saw Mexican populations triple to more than
Midwest: The number of Mexicans killed annually doubled between 1996 and 2002,
from 19 to 38; death rates were slightly above the national average for
Northeast: The region has the fewest Mexicans, but death rates still far
exceeded American worker averages. Total annual deaths rose from eight to 17.
Construction was the deadliest industry. Across the nation, about 1 in 3,100
Mexican construction laborers died at work, a rate notably greater than
native-born white and black construction laborers, though in line with the rate
for native-born Hispanics.
Federal and state safety officials are starting to grapple with the problem.
OSHA Director John Henshaw points to Spanish-language materials the agency has
put on its Web site, as well as the agency's Hispanic Taskforce, which
The greatest frustration is that so many deaths are avoidable.
"Ninety-five to 99 percent of the time, there's going to be noncompliance with a
standard that could have prevented the fatality," says Joe Reina, the No. 2 OSHA
official for Texas and neighboring states and a leader of the Hispanic
Still, Reina holds workers partly responsible.
"They just don't know that they have rights and responsibilities," Reina says,
including the ability to complain against employers.
The Associated Press used two primary statistical sources, both collected by the
federal government, to do its own computer analysis of elevated death rates
among Mexican workers in the United States.
The first source is the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, a Bureau of Labor
Statistics project which catalogues the vast majority of U.S. workplace deaths.
Those numbers, verified using multiple sources, allow analysis of workplace
deaths from many angles - in this case, by country of birth.
The second source is the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, the same
source used to calculate the monthly unemployment rate.
Many Mexican-born workers are in the United States legally, either on work visas
or as legal permanent residents. But because about half of the Mexican workers
are undocumented, government statisticians use a complex set of calculations to
project the total population of Mexican-born workers.
At the request of The AP, the population data were compiled by Jeffrey Passel,
an authority on Mexican immigrant-related statistics from the Urban Institute, a
nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., that develops population
estimates that are cited regularly in academic research.
The AP calculated death rates for Mexican workers by comparing the estimated
population of Mexican workers with the fatal injury reports.
The AP focused on Mexican workers because they are the dominant immigrant worker
group in the United States and account for about two-thirds of deaths among
foreign-born Hispanic workers. Workers from other Spanish-speaking countries
were excluded from The AP's study because their numbers are smaller, and
government population estimates for them are considered less reliable.
SOURCE: The Associated Press