Federal Government Officials Pledge Reforms to Protect Latino Workers’ Health and Safety

OSHAI had the exciting opportunity last week to attend the historic National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety, cosponsored by OSHA/U.S. Department of Labor and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), in Houston, Texas.  Following the summit, I participated in a 3-day immigrant workers’ gathering where I had the chance to share the safety concerns of Nebraska’s meatpacking workers from “The Speed Kills You”: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers, our recent survey of 455 workers across the state of Nebraska.

Latino workers in the U.S. have the highest death rate from injuries sustained while on the job, even higher than in many developing countries. Indeed, from 1992 to 2006, while the nation’s total number of workplace deaths declined, the number of Latino workers who died on the job rose by 76 percent. Latino workers are also the lowest paid, have a greater chance of becoming the victims of wage theft, and are likely to deal with more dangerous conditions on the job than any other group of workers.

The summit brought together 1,000 workers and representatives from employer associations, labor unions, the faith community, community organizations, worker centers, the medical community, safety and health professionals, educators, government officials, Consulates, and non-traditional partners like entertainment and advertising professionals. The goal was to develop a working agenda to prevent injury and death among workers in high-risk industries. I met with people from states around the country who share Nebraskans’ interest in workplace safety for meat and poultry processing, construction, and many other important jobs.

During the summit, government officials pledged to build new community partnerships, train workers on their rights to safe working conditions, and challenge unethical employers who undercut good employers [OR challenge unethical employers, so that good business isn’t undercut by bad business]. OSHA officials promised to work with community partners such as worker centers and occupational safety and health committees to reach out, train and support Latino workers. Government agencies, workers and other organizations shared valuable materials on successful workplace health and safety programs in a series of workshops and developed plans and strategies to encourage hazard awareness and identification to empower workers and for increased enforcement by OSHA and other relevant government agencies.

In her keynote address, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said, “Our focus this week is to ensure that workers know and understand that they have a basic right to a safe workplace. And we need to make sure that employers have the information they need to uphold OSHA standards and safe work practices.” A lack of immigration reform to ensure pathways to legal status for those who help do important work is one component of this problem. As Solis remarked, “Working without documents is against the law, but it should not be a death sentence.” Secretary Solis and other speakers also urged Congress to pass the Protecting Americas Workers Act, which would significantly strengthen and update the 40-year-old OSH Act.

It is our hope that government officials and agencies follow up on their inspiring words during the summit through concrete action in order to increase health and safety of all workers in the United States, including Latino workers.

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