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Mexicans more likely to die on U.S. jobs
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 U.S.-born workers.
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 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 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 Control.
"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 him.
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 air.
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 dairy.
 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 20,400 workers.
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 100,000 workers.
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: 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 coordinates outreach.
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 Taskforce.
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.
Sources cited
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