In 2002 an 18-year-old construction worker, Carlos Huerta, was building low income housing in North Carolina, when he fell to his death from a platform atop the raised prongs of a forklift. The circumstances of Huerta's death reveal what is killing these workers at a higher rate.
One, there are more and more Hispanic workers here. Who are these men? A study published in 2004 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine reported that most Hispanic construction workers were born outside the United States; one-third have been here for less than three years, and one-third speak Spanish only. They are 10 times more likely to have left school before the 9th grade.
Two, Hispanic workers have been switching from agricultural to construction work for higher pay and to avoid having to travel to the harvests. Some bring to construction an independent mindset. That might work when it comes to working on the farm. But it's not so desirable when it comes to construction.
Three, Hispanic construction workers are younger, hence less work-experienced. The disparity in construction death rates between Hispanics and non-Hispanics is at its highest in these green years--about double. The disparity declines with age but never disappears.
Four, many of these workers are undocumented. They are concerned about being deported. On top of their lack of experience is their hesitancy about demanding their safety rights.
Five, Carlos Huerta fell to his death. While falls are the most common immediate cause of death for Hispanic and non-Hispanic construction workers, death among Hispanics is noticeably more concentrated in falls. That means you need to modify the safety focus.
Six, many construction firms are small, and Hispanics appear to be over-represented in the workforces of small companies. Small employer size correlates with higher fatality rate. This has been reported even in Denmark, where safety standards are tidily enforced.
Seven, Hispanics appear to be hired more readily by employers under stress, with poor safety systems. David Lighthall, who works in California's San Joaquin Valley, follows Hispanic workforces.
"Contractors are subcontracting different jobs such as drywalling to labor contractors who have become pretty much dependent on immigrant workers, many of which are undocumented residents of Mexico," says Lighthall. "These labor contractors have a strong incentive to get their workers to complete the job as quickly as possible. This shift, driven by a high degree of access to immigrant workers willing to work their tails off, has the net effect of placing more stress on employers as well."
Eight, many of these workers are hired curbside. It is safe to say this is unsafe.
Nine, primary contractors cannot be expected to discipline subcontractors regarding safety if there are no shared insurance arrangements.
And 10, it might be a stretch to expect that safety inspectors can devote sufficient resources to induce better safety practices among these small, stressed firms. (Carlos Huerta's employer was fined.)
How do we stop the brothers of Carlos Huerta from dying? We'd better think of something, and quick. In 2010 we will have the second largest Hispanic population in the world.
PETER ROUSMANIERE, a Vermont-based consultant and writer, is a columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
April 1, 2005
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