by Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven, North Carolina Health News
In April, a 22-year-old woman was crushed to death by an industrial mixing machine during her shift at the Northeast Foods processing plant in Johnston County. In May, a 48-year-old laborer at an industrial cleaning company in Montgomery County fatally fell out of a large, horizontal duct. And in June, a 39-year-old farmworker met the same end when he found himself stuck between a pickup truck and a trailer at Bottomley Evergreens & Farms in Yadkin County.
Before their untimely deaths, these three workers had something in common: they were all Latino — as were 15 other people who died at work in North Carolina between October 2021 and July 2022.
During this time period, the state recorded 45 fatal occupational injuries among all North Carolina workers, meaning that 40 percent of those who died at work in the state were Latino, despite this population only being 10 percent of North Carolina residents.
According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, this year isn’t an outlier. Analyzing death records from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the state Office of Vital Records, the researchers found that between 2000 and 2017, with the exception of one year, Latino workers experienced the highest rate of occupational death of any racial and ethnic group.
The finding fits within other research which has found that, historically, Black and Latino workers — especially those in the South — see higher rates of occupational death than white workers.
“There is evidence in the literature that one explanation for these inequities is structural segregation of employment, where the riskiest jobs are done by Black or Latino/a workers,” lead researcher Morgan Richey explained in an email. “Other evidence points at economic factors — for example, not all workers can refuse overtime requests, or a dangerous assignment, and be ready to find a new job if their supervisor insists. Other work focuses on the behavior of employers: do they provide quality [personal protective equipment] that fits, good training, and enforce safety protocols?”
The study didn’t take into account immigration status. Richey explained that formal research on occupational death of undocumented vs documented workers is limited, though some studies have compared the rates of fatal work injuries between foreign-born Latinos and U.S.-born Latinos, and found that foreign-born Latino workers tend to fare worse.
“In the limited research I was able to find that focused on undocumented workers, undocumented status was described as a social determinant of workplace injury,” Richey explained.
That means being undocumented is thought to be one of the main conditions that impacts a person’s ability to stay safe at work. That makes sense given the evidence documenting the poor labor conditions that these workers face. In addition, many aren’t able to speak up due to fears of employer retaliation — such as firing — or even deportation.
Highest rate, but on the decline
The picture isn’t all grim though. Despite dying at higher rates than other groups, Latinos have also seen that rate decline in the last few decades. This is true for other racial and ethnic groups as well.
“Due to a lot of work by states and the federal government, we have seen huge reductions in the fatal occupational injury rate nationwide — it’s considered one of the major achievements of public health efforts in the United States,” Richey said. “We saw that in our study as well, as the rate of death among Latino/a workers in N.C. declined dramatically from 2000-2017.”
In North Carolina that outreach is done by the Occupational Safety and Health Division within the Department of Labor. Through billboards, bilingual social media campaigns and more, the department aims to teach workers how to recognize and report workplace hazards.
They also offer “consultative visits” to some job sites. During these, OSHA staff will point out possible (or obvious) dangers to employers so they can fix them before anyone gets hurt.
Still, though, Richey said there is some preliminary evidence showing that death rates are not decreasing universally and may remain quite high within certain industries.
According to data from the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration, from October 2021 through July 2022, the industry with the highest death rate — by far — is construction. These fatalities are caused most often by falls, electrocution, or being struck or crushed by equipment.
Many undocumented workers are employed in this dangerous industry — a 2021 analysis by the Center for American Progress estimated that nearly a quarter of all undocumented immigrants work in construction.
“No matter what their legal status in the United States is, or in North Carolina, every person has a right to a safe and healthy work environment,” said Grant Quiller, a health consultant at the North Carolina Department of Labor. “If you go back to the days of even Upton Sinclair, and look at the immigrants and their working conditions back in the day, this is a problem that’s been ever present.”
The state labor department does not collect data about workers’ legal status, and it encourages all employees to submit any complaints or concerns regarding safety at their jobs.
Investigations following a fatality
State OSHA staff investigate every workplace death. The process goes like this: employers have eight hours from the time they learn about the fatality to notify the agency, and the department then sends an inspector to take photos, interview the employer and other employees, take measurements, etc.
During this process, the department will open investigations into every company involved.
“If there’s an intermediate roofing contractor that hired the subcontractor that was doing the work, and if there was a builder that hired the intermediate subcontractor, we will open up inspections with all the companies involved,” explained Paul Sullivan, the assistant deputy commissioner at the Occupational Safety and Health Division within the N.C. Department of Labor.
Once the inspector has finished their investigation, if they find sufficient evidence, they issue a citation describing the problem at the worksite. The company can either appeal the citation, or they can agree with the violation. In that case, the department issues a financial penalty to the job site.
Stretched capacity for preemptive inspections
Inspections unrelated to an on-the-job death, though, go a bit differently.
The department conducts about 2,000 of these each year. About half of those are pre-planned and take place at high-hazard permanent work sites, such as manufacturing plants, while the other half are at construction sites. Construction inspections result from a compliance officer noticing a safety issue, or the office receiving a complaint from a worker.
While 2,000 inspections might seem like a lot, the office estimates there are over 200,000 work establishments in the state — so, they can’t catch everything.
“North Carolina is not unique in this,” explained Jennifer Haigwood, the director of the state’s OSHA division. “We have something like 114 budgeted positions for safety and health compliance officers for the entire state — and we actually have one of the bigger programs in the United States.”
And, Haigwood added, many of those budgeted positions are now vacant due to current labor shortages.
“I think most of us can agree that making work as safe as possible is worthwhile,” said Richey, the researcher.
“While I think that should be enough, I can also make an economic case — workplace fatalities are extremely expensive,” he said, noting that the National Safety Council estimated that workplace death cost more than $163 billion in 2020.
“As anyone with a lifelong injury knows, the cost of a serious injury can be financially taxing, but also involve lifelong pain, medical expenses, and serious reduction in quality of life,” Richey said. “As we re-evaluate what work looks like in America, this could be the perfect time to re-evaluate our policies, procedures and values.”
North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.
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