Abdón Urrutia remembers the impact. He was 16 feet off the ground on a commercial office construction project in Tysons Corner, tied in with a harness, stripping the metal molds used to pour concrete off the walls after they had set. Suddenly, one of the molds tipped over into his back, knocking him against protruding rebar and a wooden handrail. He yelled out in pain, and his brother rushed over to help him to the ground, as his legs started getting numb.
“I was laying down on the floor for two hours trying to figure out how to get up,” recalled Urrutia, 23, nearly six months after the accident.
According to Urrutia’s account of the story — which three colleagues, including his brother, corroborated in affidavits prepared by a labor union — what followed was a stark reminder of the risks, to health and life, that Latinos are disproportionately exposed to in the workplace. Latinos still make up a much larger portion of workers in dangerous jobs like construction, and haven’t benefited as much from the economy-wide changes that have made the workplace safer for for everyone else.
The most glaring sign of the problem, experts say, is the worker fatality rate: The overall number of on the job-deaths reached an all-time low of 3.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2013, while the Latino rate inched up again to 3.8 from 3.7.
On the day of his injury, after Urrutia lifted himself up the floor, he says, the staff at the company where he worked gave him eight ibuprofen, and he was able to go back to work. And he was back at work the next day, too — on lighter duty, without carrying heavy things.
“That’s how they are. They say it’s nothing big, keep working,” Urrutia said.
About a month later, his back still in pain, Urrutia went to a doctor — but couldn’t afford the MRI she recommended. Urrutia doesn’t have health insurance, saying the company’s coverage is too expensive.
“I just take these pills every day. They work real good,” Urrutia says, holding out a bottle of Naproxen, a powerful painkiller. “It hurts, but I just deal with it, just to get the job done.”
Urrutia says he later told the company he was worried about the number of pills he was taking, not wanting to get addicted. The company gave him some papers to sign, which Urrutia says he thought at the time were an acknowledgement of the dosage. He didn’t read them closely, however — and in fact, the company says, the forms certified that he hadn’t been injured at work.
Effectively, the accident disappeared — no workers compensation claim was necessary — except for the pain Urrutia still feels when he picks up his two-year-old daughter, and the $1,000 he’s paid out of pocket in doctor’s bills, which have delayed the wedding he and his fiancee had planned for this summer.
Kenneth Fender, the vice president of Baker D.C., the Washington D.C.-based company where Urrutia works, denies that there was any misunderstanding. Fender says their safety ratings are all significantly above the industry average and that Urrutia’s injury wast not serious. Fender adds that when Urrutia was initially hurt, Baker staff told him where he could seek treatment. And, he says, Urrutia voluntarily returned to work.
The roots of inequity
Urrutia’s accident, though, could have happened at any construction site. Injuries often go under-reported, especially among Latinos. Although Urrutia speaks good English, many on his job site — and others around the country — don’t. Those who are undocumented fear that filing complaints will lead to retaliation, and don’t want to risk missing a paycheck by taking time off anyway. Another challenge: Companies choose whether to report workplace injuries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and often no race is included.
Instead, safety wonks focus on deaths, which are gathered through news reports and investigations, and are believed to be more or less comprehensive. “Plainly put,” says Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of non-profit groups that work on worker safety, “it’s harder to hide a dead worker.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary numbers for 2013, which are usually revised upward as more reports trickle in, 797 Latinos died on the job last year, up from an all-time low of 707 in 2010. Over the same period, the overall number declined from 4,690 fatalities to 4,405 — an all-time low. In the aggregate, American workers have gotten a whole lot more safe, in large part because machines have replaced humans in dangerous industries like mining and manufacturing.
“The overall rate is as much a reflection of what’s going on in a particular industry, and what that industry contributes to the economy,” says Peg Seminario, who has tracked workplace safety issues for the AFL-CIO since the 1980s. “Even if those jobs aren’t getting any safer, the overall rate is going to go down, because there are fewer of them.”
At the same time, however, Latinos are increasingly over-represented in the dangerous industries that remain, according to a 2013 analysis by the BLS. Take construction, which has added 636,000 jobs since the industry’s post-recession low point in January 2011. It also accounted for the largest number of fatalities in 2013, 18 percent. Latinos make up 15.6 percent of the population over 16 years old, but their representation in construction is high and growing: Nearly one in three workers in construction and natural resource extraction occupations were Latino in 2013, up from 23.7 percent in 2003.
Immigrants are especially vulnerable if they can’t read safety instructions or communicate with supervisors. OSHA has ramped up its outreach to Spanish-speakers in recent years, visiting worker centers all over the country to conduct trainings.
Sometimes, though, it’s harder to reach the smaller employers. And the number of deaths of people working for contractors has jumped just since OSHA started measuring them in 2011, from 542 in 2011 to 734 in 2013. Hispanics are over-represented there, too, making up 28.3 percent of contractor deaths in 2013 (compared to 18 percent of total deaths).
“A lot of these smaller companies are just trying to get the job done quickly and cost-effectively, and a lot of times the worker safety is sacrificed in all of that,” says Andrew Hass, a lawyer with D.C.’s Employment Justice Center who represents many immigrant workers.
Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of the migrant worker aid group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, observed the uptick in Latino worker fatalities. She most often hears about widows seeking help to get the bodies of their husbands across the border — 527 of those who died on the job in 2013 were foreign-born, mostly from Mexico.
“A lot of employers suggest to workers that they go back and their wife will make them soup and everything will get better,” says Micah-Jones. “And then they have a really difficult time getting workers compensation or any kind of help.”
Organizing for improvement
Abdón Urrutia didn’t always want to work construction. He wanted to be a chef.
But other things got in the way of culinary school. He came initially to Arlington, Va. from El Salvador when he was 14. Urrutia’s family was able to buy a little house in Oxon Hill, Md., where he continues to live with his brother and parents; his stepfather has worked as a janitor at Marriott in Crystal City, Va. for 27 years.
When he graduated from high school in 2010, he went into debt to buy a Chevy sports car he coveted. To pay off the debt, he went into retail, and worked his way up to managing four mobile phone stores.
It was stressful work, though, filling in at odd hours if staff got sick, being responsible for inventory, and never getting vacation. So about one and a half years ago, he decided to join his older brother Jose, who had worked for 11 years at the same company. Almost all the workers there are Latino, Urrutia says, and only a few speak English.
Urrutia is in a better position than many Latino workers. He learned English as a teenager. He has work authorization through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary residence for young immigrants. And he has a job with a large company that has standardized procedures and a reputation to protect.
There’s still lots of room for improvement, though. And Urrutia has his eyes on a remedy: Organizing with the Laborers International Union of North America, which has been working for several months on a campaign to organize workers at Baker Concrete, which says a union isn’t necessary.
LIUNA has been trying unsuccessfully to make inroads in the D.C. region’s almost completely non-union construction industry for several years. Several studies have indicated that unionized companies have better safety records, with more training and less fear of retaliation if workers file complaints.
Last month, LIUNA announced a partnership with one of the area’s largest Latino advocacy groups, Casa de Virginia, in hopes of building trust with a community that has historically been among the least unionized in the country.
Urrutia says he’s committed to the cause and won’t leave Baker to go to back to the retail or restaurant industries quite yet, even if they’re easier on his still-aching back.
“I’ve gotten offers of other jobs,” he says. “And I’m like, I’m not moving until they do something.”