Deadly job description
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 Southern and Western states, where a Mexican worker is four times more likely to die than the average U.S.-born worker. These accidental deaths are almost always preventable and often gruesome: Workers are impaled, shredded in machinery, buried alive. Some are as young as 15.
For the first study of its kind of Mexican worker deaths in the United States, the AP talked with scores of workers, employers, advocates and government officials and analyzed years of federal safety and population statistics.
Among the findings of the study:
– 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 about 80 percent more likely.
– Deaths among Mexicans increased faster than their population in the U.S. 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.
– 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 – those who historically work America’s hardest jobs – 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, 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. Those here illegally, fearful of attracting attention, can be reluctant to complain. And their work culture and Third World safety expectations don’t discourage extra risk-taking.
Simple precautions would save many lives, government records show. “Was not using any type of fall protection,” concludes a government report on one worker who fell 150 feet. Says another report: “Untrained worker … operated the equipment.” Another: “Procedure was patently unsafe.”
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 protections as guest workers 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 was helping build federal low-income housing in North Carolina – but because his bosses ignored basic work safety rules, according to state safety inspectors, he fell to his death.
Huerta was told to stand in a trash container, which a forklift raised 10 feet so he could wash a brick wall. But the improvised platform wasn’t secured to the forklift’s prongs, and it soon toppled.
In 2002, the year Huerta was killed and the latest year of complete federal statistics, more Mexicans died in construction than any other industry – and more died from fatal falls than any other accident.
In April 2000, 16-year-old Antonio Garcia Reyes was framing the roof of a new college dormitory in Alabama when he plunged three stories. He had no harness or other protection against a fall, accident investigators found.
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 the walls of sandy soil collapsed.
The United States offered Rigouerto and Moses wages 10 times higher than in Mexico. The boys offered their employers cheap, pliant labor.
Each of these four teens had just been hired by a subcontractor, the kind of outfit bigger firms sometimes employ to keep costs down. For safety violations that led to these four deaths, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined employers a total of $63,075.
Accidents like these suggest that employers tell Mexicans to do 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.
“They’re considered disposable,” she says.
However, employers are not always at fault, 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 in 2000. The blade punctured his chest just above where the protective metal mesh stopped.
“Everybody wishes they had 20-20 hindsight on this one,” said Mark Klein, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., which owns the plant where workers have since been outfitted with larger protective tunics.
Sometimes a worker may misjudge a hazard. That was the conclusion of federal inspectors in the case of Manuel Topete, who punctured his heart when he tripped carrying a borrowed knife at another Nebraska meatpacking plant. He wore no protective gear because his job was to steam-clean meat, not cut it.
Soon after Topete gashed himself, supervisors moved his body and opted to restart the work line at the plant. Co-worker Luis Rodriguez, who described a geyser of blood pumping from Topete’s chest, still can’t understand it. “The foreman came real fast and turned the chain on. Why?”
Supervisors properly resumed work because they didn’t know the severity of the accident, said a spokesman for the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, who called Topete’s death “a tragic and unfortunate accident.”
When Camilo Rojas died at a Georgia chicken processing plant in 2001 – his head crushed by a conveyor belt from which he’d tried to dislodge a packing box – plant officials closed the bloodied production line, but ran two others that day.
Urbano Ramirez died picking tobacco in the North Carolina summer. There was no drinking water in the field, though his crew boss sold beers on the side. That supervisor told investigators Ramirez suffered a nose bleed, so he told him to rest.
Ramirez’s body was found 10 days later reclined against a magnolia tree, the only shade around. A medical examiner said he died of unknown natural causes, the body too badly decomposed for a definitive finding. His brother, Luis, suspects heat stroke.
Like Urbano Ramirez, many Mexican workers who die arrive with little more than a grade-school education. Often they leave behind a wife and children.
Criminal charges are rare – fines more typical – when employers are to blame. One exception is a California dairyman who faces involuntary manslaughter charges after two of his workers drowned in liquid cow manure.
Jose Alatorre was overcome by fumes as he stood in the fetid stew, trying to fix a pump at the bottom of a 30-foot concrete shaft. His partner, Enrique Araisa, died trying to save him.
Both men were full-time workers but, according to prosecutors, had no safety training. No one told them to ventilate the predictably hazardous air or provided a harness to extract a stricken worker.
“They didn’t simply go into the shaft, they got the shaft,” prosecutor Gale Filter told grand jurors who indicted the dairy owner. Trial is scheduled for April.
The deaths received a burst of attention in early 2001, but just 18 months later, at another dairy in the same small town of Gustine, a third Mexican-born worker died in the same way.
“They didn’t simply go into the shaft, they got the shaft.”
– Gale Filter, prosecutor