As Department of Labor officials noted in their opening remarks at the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety last week, Latino workers have higher rates of occupational injuries and fatalities than US workers as a whole. They are particularly likely to work in low-wage, high-risk jobs, but may not receive or know about the training, equipment, and other safeguards to which they’re entitled.

Since no previous administration’s Department of Labor has made such a high-profile move to advance Latino workers’ health and safety, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and the Department of Labor staff deserve credit for taking this important first step. As the lead organizing agency, OSHA deserves commendations for bringing together 1,000 participants from government, labor unions, community organizations, and employer and industry groups to engage with each other on this issue.

What I most want to praise OSHA for, though, was getting actual Latino workers to the event and featuring several of them in the opening session. Jaime Zapata, Senior Managing Director of DOL’s Office of Public Affairs, did a great job moderating the panel, slipping seamlessly back and forth between Spanish and English (the workers all spoke in Spanish, and although there was a translator on stage, Zapata seemed comfortable speaking with the panelists in Spanish and then quickly summarizing his questions in English). The workers’ stories were the perfect illustration about how much work we still have to do to make all workplaces healthy and safe. Here’s a summary of what they told the crowd:

Celia has been working as a hotel housekeeper at a Hyatt hotel in Long Beach, California for 19 years. Previously, she’d been cleaning 16 rooms during each 8-hour shift, but then the company instituted a new program that requires housekeepers to clean 25-30 rooms per shift. Under the new program, rates of injuries among the housekeepers have increased. Celia is now disabled, even after having had knee and shoulder surgery. She explains that she suffers from pain in her back, hands, and wrists – but what hurts most is that she can’t be involved with her granddaughters’ lives the way she could be if she were healthy. She wants OSHA to make Hyatt and other hotel chains review their requirements for how much housekeepers are expected to complete during each shift, and to do something about the fact that so many housekeeper injuries are not reported.

José is a construction worker in Phoenix, Arizona. He reported a broken nail gun to his boss, but it wasn’t fixed – and a short time later, José was using the nail gun and it shot a nail through his fingers. The boss told him to go home, where he removed the nail from his hand. He couldn’t work for weeks, but he wasn’t informed about workers’ compensation. He also didn’t have health insurance because he couldn’t afford the premiums – although it probably would’ve been more affordable if he’d been paid for the hours he actually work. Although José was working long hours, often 70-80 per week, his paychecks were only for 38 or 39 hours per week.

Mauricia is a California agricultural worker who has watched two of her co-workers die while picking grapes. Beneath the grape vines, the air is wet and hot, with temperatures often between 110 and 115 degrees. Workers don’t always have access to necessary water and shade. Mauricia had told the manager about the problems and urged him to look out for the workers’ health – but, she concluded, he didn’t pay attention. In two separate instances, workers collapsed and then died from heatstroke and dehydration.

Isabel is employed by Sodexho as a college housecleaner. The company gives them too much work, which leads to accidents. When Isabel and her co-workers report problems to the supervisor, they’re just told to go back to work. One woman got a gash in her head from a showerhead, and rather than sending her for medical attention, the boss simply told her to go home. She stayed home for two days without getting better before going to the doctor, and wasn’t told about workers’ compensation. Isabel notes that the housekeeping staff doesn’t have clean facilities in which to take meal breaks – there are dangerous chemicals in the room where they eat breakfast, and rat excrement and poison where they eat lunch.

Juanito is a construction worker in Austin, Texas. Last June, he and three others were working on the eleventh floor of a condominium project when the scaffolding collapsed. Juanito survived, but watched his co-workers fall 120 feet to their death. Like José, Juanito spends far more hours on a job than he is paid for, usually working 12 hours a day, six days a week but only getting paid for 35-40 hours (and no overtime).

These stories highlight one of the issues that came up repeatedly during the panel discussions and workshops I attended: The problems these workers described fall under the jurisdiction of multiple different agencies. It’s not just OSHA that needs to be cracking down on scofflaw employers, but DOL’s Wage and Hour Division and state workers’ compensation programs. The fact that half of the states operate their own OSHA plans adds yet another layer of complication.

The complexity of the system for addressing workplace danger and injustice is certainly a challenge, but it’s a surmountable one. While I was in Houston, I heard examples from the Workers Defense Project, Community Labor Environmental Action Network, MassCOSH, and others about how they’re helping workers learn about and exercise their rights. (And, judging by the T-shirts of the opening session panelists, it was community groups and unions who identified these panelists to the OSHA conference organizers.)

What’s more challenging than complexity is workers’ fears of what will happen to them if they complain about workplace problems. OSHA head David Michaels made this statement in his opening remarks:

We want Latino workers to know that if they have questions, if they have safety concerns, if they want to know about their rights, if they seek protection from retaliation when they complain about dangerous conditions on the job — workers can rely on OSHA and the Department of Labor for help.

I know there are hundreds of committed DOL employees who will do all they can to protect workers’ rights – but OSHA’s track record on handling whistleblower complaints seems likely to discourage anyone who’s experiencing retaliation and wants help. If OSHA and DOL really want workers to rely on them, they should make it a priority to improve the whistleblower protection program.

At this event, DOL – and OSHA in particular – demonstrated that they care about the high rates of workplace injuries and deaths among Latino workers, and about the individual people who experience unsafe and illegal working conditions. The agencies probably also realized that many organizations and companies, not to mention workers themselves, are ready to work with the government to make all workplaces safe. Now we need to see what concrete steps the agencies will take toward this goal.

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