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Uncertain Safety for Latino Workers

Construction job fatality rates exceed those for other groups, and many are reluctant to complain

by Stephen Franklin

They were working on a sloped roof without hard hats or safety harnesses, hired off a Chicago street corner for $10 an hour, when Mario Lopez stepped on a loose board and tumbled down through a fire-gutted three-story house and landed in the basement. His spine was broken, his pelvis shattered.

Today, 33-year-old Lopez cannot walk without a walker, lift his arms or even feel his fingertips. He cannot sit or stand for long. "I can't do anything," he said with slow, sad shake of his head.

Yet he can be thankful he is alive.

Hundreds of Latino workers across the U.S. die annually in construction accidents, a toll that has mounted steadily. Two years ago 354 Latinos were killed in construction accidents, a 34 percent increase over 2003, the most recent government statistics show. More than one out of three Latinos killed on the job in 2006 lost their lives doing construction work, a far higher proportion than for white or black workers.

And as Latinos have flooded into the U.S., their fatality rates in construction have steadily exceeded those of non-Hispanic workers, although both proportions have trended down of late for full-time workers Many of the Latinos killed or hurt are like Lopez, who is an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. They tend to hunker down in the shadows fearful of being caught. Many can't speak English. Even those who do rarely point out on-the-job dangers because they desperately want the money.

Frequently they are hired off street corners for lower-paying, more dangerous construction jobs. Or they work for contractors "with poor or no safety programs at all," said Hester Lipscomb, a safety expert at Duke University.

When injured -- and they suffer more injuries than whites and other minorities -- they are less likely to have health insurance.

Latino construction workers are younger than non-Hispanics. They have less education, and often less experience, if any, in construction than non-Hispanics, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training, a Washington, D.C.-area think tank.

In New York City, where, federal figures show, the number of Latinos killed in construction has doubled since 2003, Luzdary Giraldo says young Latino workers recognize the dangers.

"They are very afraid, but they say they have no other options," said Giraldo, a workplace safety expert who counsels immigrant workers through the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

With construction drying up, an already dangerous situation may become even more dangerous.

"So many people who work in construction are willing to take risks and a job they wouldn't have taken three years ago," said Jessica Aranda, head of the Latino Union of Chicago, an agency that assists day laborers. "There's a lot of injuries I've never seen before."

Pressure to take jobs

Pablo Alvarado, head of the Los Angeles-based National Day Labor Organizing Network, which links dozens of day labor centers across the U.S., said job-hungry workers are faced with accepting jobs that they might otherwise ignore. That's because, he said, "the number of workers going to the street is increasing and the number of jobs is decreasing."

Take Juan Torres, who is neither young nor inexperienced.

A burly 54-year-old, Torres had been doing construction work since illegally crossing the U.S. border from Mexico four years ago. But the contractor who regularly hired him had no work. So in September 2006 he was hired off a Chicago street corner.

He and another worker were supposed to dig a deep hole in a house basement. "I know they put protections to stop the earth from falling in," he said. "But the owner wanted everything done very quickly."

His head was at least two feet below the basement floor when earth started pouring in on him. "I didn't think I was going to live," recalled Torres.

He believes it took the other worker at least half an hour to clear the earth away from his face and rescue workers five hours to free him.

"I can't work ... I can't lift anything," said Torres, whose knees, shoulder and back were injured in the accident and who eventually sought help from the Interfaith Worker Rights Center on Chicago's North Side, which helped him find an attorney to file a worker's compensation claim.

Officials from the federal agency that oversees worker safety say they have watched the spiral of Latino deaths at construction sites and taken steps. They have distributed guides in Spanish, partnered with Latino community groups, and 22 of the 26 training grants for construction safety given out last year were aimed at Latinos.

"We are appalled that there are this many fatalities, whether for Hispanics or others," said Steve Witt, director of construction programs in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "We are adjusting our programs and acting as aggressively as we can."

But experts like Jim Platner, an industrial hygienist at the Center for Construction Research and Training, question why there has not been a "payoff" from the government's efforts.

They say the federal government and states must be more aggressive in discovering what Chicago attorney Jose Rivero describes as "a clandestine world where there is no security."

In places like California, where the number of Latinos killed in construction mishaps grew by 70 percent between 2003 and 2006, there simply aren't enough inspectors to track down the dangerous and out-of-the-way work sites where workers are injured, said Linda Delp, an occupational safety expert at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But finding unscrupulous construction contractors is not easy, says Chicago attorney John Budin. "A lot of these contractors are not licensed or bonded. And they don't report injuries to OSHA," he said.

Worker had spoken out

Lopez was not a newcomer to construction, having done such work since coming to the U.S. more than five years ago, and before that in Guatemala. He had also spoken out when he considered the work dangerous, such as on a job several months before his accident.

"We were on scaffolds and I asked the guy for a security belt because it was windy and with a fall from there, you aren't going to get up," he said. "But he didn't want to give them to any of us and so he got rid of me because I didn't want to go up there without protection."

The day he fell last October, Lopez and another man were on the roof working on Chicago's North Side.

Lopez said he had asked the other worker to nail down a board that they would use for footing. But the man, inexperienced in construction, didn't do as asked, and the board flew away the instant Lopez's foot touched it.

As he fell through the house, Lopez said, "I felt that I was going to die. I remember seeing the faces of my children in my mind."

Lopez didn't report his injury to any agency. He didn't even know he could.

And his world shrank dramatically. Now he lives in a basement, supported by friends and relatives, and rarely leaves. Therapy is impossible, he said, because he is an illegal immigrant and cannot seek government support.

Since he could no longer send money home his wife had to sell the house they bought in Guatemala City with the money he earned in Chicago. He also expects to be going home soon, since the formula that he lived by is shattered, just like his spine.

"Here in the United States, a day without work is a day lost, a day without earning money."

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune

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