By Tom O'Connor, Executive Director, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health
2011 was a bad year for North Carolina’s Hispanic workers, especially those working in construction and agriculture. Although they make up only about seven percent of the state’s population, Latinos accounted for 30 percent of deaths on the job in NC in 2011 according to a report to be released this week in conjunction with Workers’ Memorial Day, April 28. A majority of these deaths occurred in the construction and agriculture industries and most were due to highly preventable causes.
"North Carolina Workers: Dying for a Job," produced by the Raleigh-based National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and the recently formed Triangle area Jobs with Justice chapter, found that:
- The State Department of Labor grossly understates the problem of worker deaths in NC. The NCDOL reported earlier this year that 53 people died on the job in NC in 2011. The report counted a total of 83 deaths.
- Fines imposed by Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s OSHA are pathetically low, even in cases of worker deaths. The median fine paid by employers in cases of worker deaths in NC in which at least one OSHA violation was found was only $3,250. These fines are far too low to act as an effective deterrent to unsafe employer behavior.
- State and local governments are using taxpayer dollars to support some employers who criminally neglect their workers’ safety and health, sometimes with tragic consequences.
The case of Triangle Grading and Paving is a prime example. Luis Castaneda Gomez, an employee of the company, told his wife that he feared for his life on his construction job. “Luis didn't want to work for the company….He would say they would force him to do stuff that was dangerous,” his wife told a reporter. But he couldn’t find any other jobs in the slow economy. Sadly, the 34 year old construction worker’s worst fears came to pass. He and a co-worker, Jesus Martinez Benitez, were sent down into a manhole on the site of a road construction project in Durham. The men had not been given oxygen detectors nor equipment that is required for work in confined spaces. Both men died from asphyxiation in the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of the manhole. The company had been awarded the contract because they were the lowest bidder, despite a long history of OSHA violations and a previous fatality. (Click here for more on this case.)
The groups will be releasing their report at a Workers’ Memorial Day commemoration event in front of the State Department of Labor office at 4 W. Edenton St. in downtown Raleigh on Friday April 27 at 12:00 noon.
Please come out and show your support for safe workplaces for all North Carolina workers!