National Data | Hispanic Immigrants are Dangerous To Workplace Safety

On-the-job injuries and deaths cost U.S. businesses a staggering $241 billion a year, according to a recent AFL-CIO study. ["Death on the Job: The Toll of  Neglect," April 2002.]. In recent years these costs have risen far faster than what we could have predicted based on employment growth or the rise in the medical cost component of the Consumer Price Index.

This suggests that something else is driving up workplace related medical costs.

  • One likely suspect: Immigration.

About 30 million immigrants live in the United States, and about 90 percent of them are of working age. Foreign-born workers are more accident-prone than native workers: they account for a disproportionate share of injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in the workforce. [Table 1.]

In 2002, for example:

  • Hispanic workers accounted for 12.1 percent of total employment, but 17.8 percent of non-fatal workplace injuries

 

  • Whites accounted for 72.1 percent of employment, but 65.8 percent of non-fatal injuries

 

  • Blacks accounted for 10.2 percent of employment, and 11.3 percent of  non-fatal workplace injuries

Arguably because of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, the number of workplace fatalities have decreased for decades. But Hispanic workers have bucked this favorable trend. [Table 2.]

From 1992 to 2002:

  • Fatalities involving Hispanic workers increased by 332, or 65 percent

 

  • Fatalities involving White workers decreased by 1,152, or 23 percent

 

  • Fatalities involving Black workers decreased by 117, or 19 percent

One common argument: Hispanics gravitate to risky occupations—“jobs natives don`t want to do”—and this, rather than problems with English, might explain their above average workplace mortality rates.

But this notion is belied by government statistics.

Take the meatpacking industry, widely regarded as the province of Hispanic immigrants willing to work in conditions unacceptable to native workers. Federal data show not only that whites are well represented in this industry, but also that they perform the same tasks more safely than Hispanics.

Ditto for the construction and manufacturing industries. [Table 3.]

A lack of English proficiency is also cited as a major cause of higher death rates among Hispanic workers. The Bush Administration has responded with a $2 million dollar OSHA program designed to train non-English speaking workers—whether here legally or not—in job-safety techniques.

This problem is not going away soon. Over the years, billions have been spent teaching English to Hispanic immigrants. Yet, as we point out in an earlier article, the share of Hispanic immigrants that is “linguistically isolated,” i.e., speak English poorly or not at all, is increasing. Even simple English language instructions are incomprehensible to the “linguistically isolated.”

Can OSHA succeed where the educational establishment failed?

[Number fans click here for tables.]

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.