- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

The Labor Department will begin a program today that includes training Hispanic workers with limited English skills how to avoid injury on the job.

The program is part of the agency’s widening effort to protect the rights of Hispanic workers. It follows the Labor Department’s first-ever request for federal funding to train foreign-language workers in job-safety techniques, even if they are illegally in the United States.

Nearly all of the requested $2.2 million would be dedicated to training Hispanic workers.

The Labor Department will open an office today in Dallas and plans to open other offices nationwide in the next few months, including the Washington area. The Labor Department’s Hispanic task force began testing the concept two years ago in Houston.

“There is currently a project to expand to other cities,” said a Labor Department spokesman who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Protecting Hispanic workers from job discrimination and employers who cheat them out of wages are also part of the Justice and Equality in the Workplace Program.

The Hispanic task force continues a Bush administration outreach effort that started during the 2000 election campaign, when Mr. Bush pledged to relax immigration laws.

Since he was elected, President Bush, who speaks Spanish, also met with the Mexican president and appears to be trying to curry Hispanic favor again.

“Our commitment to assure the safety and health of workers in this country extends to all workers, regardless of their language or their immigration status,” said administrator John Henshaw of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in announcing the $2.2 million request to Congress for safety training of workers who speak foreign languages.

The Labor Department organized its Hispanic task force in 2001 at the same time that the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report showing that Hispanics died from job injuries at a rate 23 percent higher than the average for all ethnic groups.

Construction work takes the highest toll, accounting for 24 percent of Hispanic workers’ deaths. Meatpacking and migrant farm work also contribute.

The BLS report, based on 2000 figures, found the fatality rate for Hispanic workers to be 5.6 per 100,000, compared with 4.2 for white workers and 3.8 for black workers.

A language barrier, suspicion about whether government agencies such as OSHA really seek to protect them and “need” contribute to the high injury rate for Hispanics, the Labor Department spokesman said.

“There are dangerous jobs out there that need to be done,” the spokesman said. “Because they are in need, they will take them.”

Locally, workers wait at pickup spots in Langley Park and Silver Spring for day-labor jobs such as painting or drywall construction.

OSHA might be able to protect Hispanics better if such workers trusted the agency, the Labor Department spokesman said. OSHA enforces job-safety standards against employers and seeks to avoid workplace death and injury.

Workers have a right to report job hazards to OSHA without fear of retaliation, but few Hispanics exercise that right.

“They are afraid of government,” the Labor Department spokesman said. “They see it as an impediment to progress.”

The Hispanic task force’s Dallas and Houston programs offer one-stop centers at the Mexican Consulates, where staff members explain workers’ rights to job safety, fair pay and a lack of discrimination.

“Some of them don’t know the type of safety on the job. They don’t know where they can go to get information,” said Diana Petterson, spokeswoman for the Labor Department’s Dallas office. “This is one central location so they don’t have to check various resources.”

In other cities, the Labor Department plans to have its staff operate out of nonprofit agencies. The program is funded through the Labor Department’s existing budget.

Construction-industry representatives say eliminating discrimination against immigrants is only a partial solution to the high death and injury rate for Hispanic workers.

“I think it’s going to come down to training,” said Ralph Riley, safety director for the Associated Builders and Contractors. The Washington trade group represents about 23,000 contractors nationwide.

The group produces videotaped “toolbox safety meetings” that employers can show workers to explain job-safety techniques. For the past three years, the group has regularly put out Spanish language versions of the tapes.

Local builders did not return phone calls for comment.

Representatives from the Labor Department and the governments of Mexico and El Salvador are participating in the signing ceremony today at the Mexican Consulate in Dallas.

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