LIANE HANSEN, host:
Nearly 6,000 workers die on the job in the United States every year. They fall from scaffoldings, get pulled into industrial machines or are exposed to toxic chemicals. Since the federal government began to compile these statistics, the number of workplace fatalities has been fairly constant - except among Latinos. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Latino workers had a fatality rate that was 21 percent higher than all workers in 2006.
Nancy Mullane reports from San Francisco.
NANCY MULLANE: It was supposed to be an especially good day at work for Margarita Mojica(ph). The 26-year-old mother, who had emigrated from Mexico, had just told her co-workers at the industrial printing plant she was four months pregnant with her second child. Then, at 11:36 that morning, everything changed. She got trapped in a large die-press cutting machine, and before emergency crews could wrench her out, she was dead.
Malinda Estrada(ph) is Mojica's sister-in-law. Speaking at the family home, the curtains drawn, she says they are all devastated.
Ms. MALINDA ESTRADA (Margarita Mojica's Sister-in-Law): 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.
MULLANE: 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 Margarita Mojica's death is under investigation.
Burt Boltuch is an attorney representing the company Digital Pre-Press International.
Mr. BURT BOLTUCH (Attorney, Digital Pre-Press International): 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.
MULLANE: 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.
Mr. LEN WELSH (Chief, Cal-OSHA): It doesn't surprise me to hear that statistic.
MULLANE: That's Len Welsh. He's chief of Cal-OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the State of California. He says his agency is largely complaint-driven, and, he says, Latinos often don't complain.
Mr. WELSH: Union shops are more likely to complain to us about hazards than non-union shops, and workers who are native speakers of English, I think, are more likely to complain to us than workers who are not.
MULLANE: So, Welsh says, over the past decade Cal-OSHA and other OSHA agencies across the country have been reaching out to Latino labor and community organizations. These groups can then act as intermediaries, encouraging Latino workers to report dangerous work conditions, so OSHA knows where to investigate.
One organization Cal-OSHA is working with is the Labor Occupational Health Program at University of California-Berkeley.
Ms. SUZANNE TERAN (Bilingual Training Coordinator, Labor Occupational Health Program, University of California-Berkeley): We're going to use media outlets and other marketing strategies to convey both health and safety messages but also how to improve working conditions.
MULLANE: Suzanne Teran is the bilingual training coordinator for the UC-Berkeley Program. She says one of the biggest challenges is informing Latino immigrants 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 also be translated for them.
Ms. TERAN: 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.
MULLANE: 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.
Ms. TERAN: When you feel vulnerable, you're not going to be the one speaking up.
MULLANE: Over the Colonial Chapel, Funeral Director Paul Scudder(ph) 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.
Mr. PAUL SCUDDER (Funeral Director, Colonial Chapel): 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 it's slippery. I've seen a lot of it. And she was legally employed. So, you know, we do a lot with the illegals that come here and unfortunately, they die tragically.
MULLANE: Over 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.
For National Public Radio, I'm Nancy Mullane.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.