Each year, nearly 6,000 workers die on the job in the United States. They fall from scaffoldings, get pulled into industrial machines or are exposed to toxic chemicals. Since the federal government began compiling these statistics, the number of workplace fatalities has been fairly constant — except among Latinos. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Latino workers' fatality rate was 21 percent higher than all workers in 2006.
'A Tragic Thing'
It was supposed to be an especially good day at work for Margarita Mojica. The 26-year-old mother who had emigrated from Mexico had just told her co-workers at the industrial printing plant that she was four months pregnant with her second child. Then, at 11:36 that morning, everything changed. She got trapped in the large die-press cutting machine, and before emergency crews could wrench her out, she was dead.
Malinda Estrada is Mojica's sister-in-law. Speaking at the family home, the curtains drawn, she says they are all devastated.
"She loved her daughter very much. And for such a tragic thing to happen like this, you know, all of a sudden, we're all in shock. We just don't know. It's very hard."
Immediately after the accident, the cutting machine with the 4-foot plates was covered with a blue plastic tarp. A wall of cardboard was put up around the area to shield her co-workers from the scene. The San Francisco Medical Examiner's office says the case of Mojica's death is under investigation.
Burt Boltuch, an attorney representing the company Digital Pre-Press International, says the company has fully cooperated with the district attorney and with Cal-OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the state of California.
"The investigation is continuing, and we are determined to get to the bottom of this to find out exactly what happened, if it was a product defect or what," Botach says.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in 2006, there were nearly 1,000 Latino workplace-related deaths in the U.S. That's the highest number since 1992, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting the data.
"It doesn't surprise me to hear that statistic," says Len Welsh, chief of Cal-OSHA. He says his agency is largely complaint-driven, and he says Latinos often don't complain.
"Union shops are more likely to complain to us about hazards than non-union shops, and workers who are native speakers of English are more likely to complain to us than workers who are not."
Welsh says Cal-OSHA and other OSHA agencies across the country have been reaching out to Latino labor and community organizations over the past decade. The groups can then act as intermediaries, encouraging Latino workers to report dangerous work conditions, so OSHA knows where to investigate.
Reaching Out to Workers
One organization Cal-OSHA is working with is the Labor Occupational Health Program at University of California-Berkeley.
"We're gonna use media outlets and other marketing strategies to convey both health and safety messages but also how to improve working conditions," says Suzanne Teran, the bilingual training coordinator for the UC-Berkeley program. She says one of the biggest challenges is informing Latino immigrants that they have the right to work in a safe environment. This means they should be properly trained in their native language, she says, and printed signs and information on the job site should be translated for them.
"The idea, the concept that there are rights that are exercised — that, as workers, you have certain rights and you can call Cal-OSHA and file a complaint — those concepts are not the ones they grew up with in their home country, and so that's something that really needs to be addressed," Teran says.
What exacerbates this problem for Latinos, she says — especially those who are here illegally — is that they are often working in the most hazardous jobs and they fear deportation if they report dangerous work conditions to OSHA.
"When you feel vulnerable, you're not going to be the one speaking up," she says.
At the Colonial Chapel, Funeral Director Paul Scudder sits in a simple office. He prepared Margarita Mojica's body for the memorial service. He says he's not surprised by the disproportionate number of Latinos who die on the job.
"A lot of these poor guys come here for work, especially the day laborers, they fall off ladders, they get electrocuted, they fall off roofs when its slippery. We get a lot of it," Scudder says. "And she was legally employed. ... We do a lot with the illegals that come here. ... Unfortunately, they die tragically."
In the corner of Scudder's office, flags from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico lean against the wall. He says when an immigrant dies, friends and family ask him to fly the flag of their loved one over the chapel during the memorial service.