Cornelio Salvador Moreno’s final moments on April 3 were terrifying.
James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 3, 2007.
The 25-year-old was one of seven workers installing pipe at the bottom of a 55-foot-wide steel shaft near T.C. Jester, part of a northwest Harris County water project. Suddenly, an adjoining tunnel beneath a creek collapsed, rushing a torrent of water into the shaft.
His foreman told sheriff’s deputies he watched Moreno ”waving his hands trying to grab a hold of something but he was smashed” against the shaft wall by rushing water.
Worker Luis Hernandez, 35, was inside the shaft with Moreno, but heard warnings about the water.
“I didn’t even think, I got out fast,” said the 35-year-old Houston man. “We knew he was there, but we couldn’t do anything.”
Moreno drowned, and Houston police divers recovered the immigrant’s body the next day from a tangle of equipment beneath oily waters.
Moreno’s horrific fate was one experienced by a growing number of Latinos in Harris County, and hundreds who died in workplaces across the nation. From July 2006 to July 2007 in Harris County, 16 of the 24 workers who died in workplace accidents were Latino. Eighteen Latinos were among the 31 workers who died in the county in the same time period the year before, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration records.
According to a report issued last month, 937 Latino workers were killed nationwide in workplace accidents in 2006, the highest number since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping fatalities by ethnic and racial categories in 1992.
According to the August BLS report, while Hispanics make up roughly 12 percent of the work force, they accounted for 16 percent of on-the-job fatalities in 2006.
Latinos are disproportionately employed in the more dangerous industries, according to OSHA. For example, the construction industry accounts for about 7 percent of all employment, but 20 percent of fatalities.
Latinos comprise almost 15 percent of construction employment, well above their representation in the work force overall. OSHA’s data on Latino workers includes native- and foreign-born workers.
Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO Council, which represents 75 unions in Houston, said many of the Latinos killed are undocumented workers.
OSHA is still investigating Moreno’s accident. Representatives for the contractor, South Coast Contracting, could not be reached for comment.
OSHA officials in Houston and Dallas were attending meetings last week and not available for interviews, spokeswoman Elizabeth Todd said.
Safety consultant Raymond Skinner, who headed one of OSHA’s two Houston offices until 2004, said employers should provide bilingual safety instructions.
”For people working on the job, it’s critical they receive proper instruction on how to perform their job safely,” Skinner said. ”If they don’t get it in a way they understand, how can they do it safely?”
On Friday, Houston native Leo Juarez was beginning a day of supervising a crew of electricians installing wiring on the upscale Mosaic condominium next to Hermann Park.
The ability to understand workplace warnings in English, said Juarez, can make the difference between life and death.
”If you only have a split-second to react, you better hope you know the language they’re warning you in,” said Juarez, a foreman with Florida-based Power Design.
The language barrier is likely a factor in Hispanic deaths, as researchers note that a high percentage of those who died on the job were foreign-born.
Steve Pegula, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C., said there was an 18 percent increase in deaths of Hispanics in the workplace between 2003 and 2006. The fatality rate of Hispanics is 21 percent higher than for all workers, he explained.
“And these Hispanic fatalities, a large part of them, are being driven by those born outside of the United States,” Pegula said, noting that foreign-born Latino workers accounted for 65 percent of Latino fatalities in 2003, rising to 67 percent last year.
In Houston, it is not uncommon to encounter Hispanic workers who speak only a few words in English.
”There is a need for more Spanish-language safety classes out there,”
said Doug Watson, director of safety services for the Houston chapter of the Associated General Contractors.
However, Watson said the large numbers of Hispanics in the work force may contribute to the high death rate of Hispanic workers. Other factors could be a lack of bilingual training and high job turnover that limits training opportunities, Watson said.
”A lot of companies don’t stress the safety issues, but mine does,”
said Salvador Sandoval, a 32-year-old employee of SM&P Utility Resources.
Sandoval, who on Friday was helping contractors for AT&T locate a utility easement near Hermann Park, said many companies ”just want to get the job done quickly.”
Many say part of the solution is a massive buildup in federal safety inspectors to check job sites before tragedies occur.
”Nationally, the budget has been reduced, and you don’t have enough inspectors, so employers get away with unsafe working conditions,” said Shaw, the AFL-CIO official. “Right now, the only time OSHA might come out is when there is a death.”
At a site where workers were erecting a large parking garage, Mexican immigrant Roberto Arriaga agreed additional safety inspections are needed.
”The safety people should come by more often, not just every month or two,” said Arriaga. ”A lot of the workers don’t understand about the work, or the safety rules, and sometimes they are not careful.”