AP Investigation: Mexican Worker Deaths Rise Sharply Even as Overall U.S. Job Safety Improves
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:
- 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.
The federal government catalogues those accidents and hundreds more each year in a growing roll call of dead Mexican workers.
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, according to the best government estimates, which may be low because of the difficulty in counting undocumented workers.
During these 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.
On-the-job fatalities had distinct regional patterns:
CALIFORNIA AND TEXAS: These states, where generations of Mexicans have developed strong support networks, still rank first and second in the annual number of Mexican worker deaths _ but the numbers have steadied or fallen recently. Though the death rate for Mexican workers in California is far less than in Western and Southeastern states where they have arrived in large numbers only recently, it is still greater than the average for U.S.-born workers, the AP found.
SOUTH: In the bloc of states from Louisiana to Maryland, the Mexican death rate averaged about 1 in 6,200 workers _ four times that of native-born workers and more than double the national average for Mexicans. Florida, North Carolina and Georgia were consistently among the deadliest states. 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 100,000 workers.
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.
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 Mexicans.
NORTHEAST: In the region with the fewest Mexicans, death rates still far exceeded American worker averages. Total annual deaths rose from eight to 17, with New Jersey seeing a recent spike.
Construction was the deadliest industry. Across the nation, about 1 in 3,100 Mexican construction laborers died on the job, a rate one-quarter above that for native-born whites working the same job, and one-third above that for native-born blacks, though more in line with that for native-born Hispanics.
Unlike an American worker who may have apprenticed in a trade such as roofing or welding, a new Mexican worker might not anticipate dangers _ or might ignore them, said James Platner of the Center to Protect Workers' Rights, a union-funded research institute.
"I think people find it easy to rationalize the hazards in their jobs," says Platner, "if their family really needs the money and they really need the job."
Federal and state safety officials are starting to grapple with the surge in Mexican worker deaths.
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 coordinates enforcement and educational ventures for Mexicans and other workers from Central and South America.
Safety officials in high-growth Southern states such as North Carolina, Georgia and Florida launched outreach programs after they saw construction deaths rise. Some states cooperate with local Mexican consulates or construction associations.
Government workers have dropped in at cultural fairs and talk radio programs, conducted workshops through churches and produced training videos. The private sector also is reacting _ the National Association of Home Builders is distributing some Spanish-language safety literature in the South.
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 four neighboring states and a leader of the Hispanic Taskforce.
Still, Reina holds workers partly responsible.
"They just don't know that they have rights and responsibilities," Reina says, among them, "the right to file a complaint."
Explaining that right is one thing, enforcing it another. Some of OSHA's own officials say their resources are insufficient and note the agency's own policies generally provide for punitive action only after an accident.
It's unclear whether Bush's guest worker program, if approved, would improve worker safety. In announcing the plan in January, the president said it would make the country safer by enhancing border controls and would help fill employers' needs and protect workers' rights.
As OSHA works to improve safety, language remains a barrier. By the agency's own count, there are no Spanish-speaking inspectors or accident investigators in the half of Georgia that includes Atlanta, where tens of thousands of recent Mexican immigrants live. Some other Southern cities do have Spanish-fluent enforcement officials.
In its eight-state Southeastern region, OSHA has a single Spanish-speaking outreach worker. Her name is Marilyn Velez, and when she isn't drawn away to translate at an accident scene, she encourages workers and employers to avoid unsafe practices and unnecessary risks.
It's not easy. Some wary workers see Velez as a police officer; others, having survived abject poverty in rural Mexico and the deserts of the U.S.-Mexico border, feel they don't need her.
"They are looking at you like, 'Are you crazy? I have done worse things,'" Velez says. "It's just the way they see risk."
Sometimes the lessons do register. But America's Mexican labor force is constantly in flux. Workers graduate to safer jobs, or perhaps they move back home. Their replacements may be the next victims.
Associated Press researcher Julie Reed contributed to this report.