Early registration is now open for APHA 2024! Join us in Minneapolis ×

Occupational Health and Safety Protections for Immigrant Workers

  • Date: Dec 14 2005
  • Policy Number: 20054

Key Words: Immigrants, Occupational Health And Safety

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2003 immigrant workers made up 14 percent of the entire workforce,1 and Census data show that immigrants accounted for about 50 percent of the net increase in the labor force during the second half of the 1990s.2 Although the greatest proportion of foreign-born workers is from Latin America (48 percent) a large proportion is Asian (22 percent).1

Foreign-born workers, especially foreign-born Hispanics, have a higher occupational fatality rate compared to other workers.3 Between 1997 and 2001, the occupational fatality rate for all foreign-born workers was 20 percent higher than the rate for all workers, and the rate for foreign-born workers from Latin America was 40 percent higher than for all workers.3 The cause of this disparity is, in large part, due to the disproportionate distribution of foreign-born workers in high-risk industries, such as construction, agriculture and manufacturing.4 However, a recent analysis found that Hispanic construction workers (65 percent of whom are foreign born) had an 80 percent greater fatality rate compared to non-Hispanic construction workers.5

Little reliable data exist on the rates of non-fatal occupational injuries because information on place of birth is not collected by the major national occupational injury and illness surveillance system, and the reporting of race and ethnicity is voluntary rather than mandatory.4 One of the few national data systems that routinely collect information both on immigrant status and on health, the National Agricultural Workers Survey run by the U.S. Department of Labor, was threatened with elimination in 2005.6

While immigration status is not available in national non-fatal occupational injury statistics, analysis of the data on Hispanic workers is informative since slightly over 50 percent of the Hispanic working age population is foreign born.7 Between 1998 and 2000, Hispanic male workers had a relative risk of non-fatal injury of 1.51, while white males who had a relative risk of 1.07 compared to workers of all races and genders.4 Additionally, studies of other occupational health outcomes have also shown that Hispanic workers are at increased risk. For example, in Massachusetts, Hispanic workers are represented in the Occupational Lead Registry of workers with elevated blood lead levels at four times their representation in the employed population.8

The disproportionate risk to foreign-born workers is also a result of the linguistic, cultural, and legal barriers that foreign-born workers face. In 2003, nearly 30 percent of the foreign-born labor force 25-years-old and older had not completed high school, compared with only about 7 percent of the native-born labor force.1 Most foreign-born Hispanic workers, especially from Mexico and Central America, have less than a high school education,7 and many of those raised in rural indigenous communities do not have Spanish as their first language. Immigrants, especially new immigrants, may be unfamiliar with local laws regarding safety and health protection or workers' compensation. In addition to an increased risk for workplace injuries and illnesses, immigrant workers face barriers to receiving appropriate health care and workers' compensation coverage.9, 10 Although all immigrant workers face these linguistic and cultural barriers, undocumented immigrant workers also face the risk associated with their marginal status. Undocumented immigrant workers, although fully covered by safety and health laws, may fear deportation if they report hazards in their workplace. Recent estimates have placed the size of the undocumented immigrant worker population in the United States at approximately 8 million workers.11 In the agricultural industry, more than half of the approximately 1.8 million crop farm workers are undocumented.12

Immigrant workers are over represented in a number of high hazard occupations such as agriculture and construction. One of the most hazardous classes of jobs within these occupations is temporary day laborers. Especially in construction and landscaping, many workers are employed for short periods in informal arrangements. These temporary informal arrangements may place the workers at even greater risk of inadequate training and provision of personal protective equipment.13

A number of community-based organizations as well as labor unions are currently working to identify approaches that would empower and protect undocumented workers. One example, developed through the Chicago-Area Workers' Rights Initiative, allows the Chicago Interfaith Worker Rights Center to act as the workers' representative for purposes of filing complaints concerning violations of occupational safety and health standards or wage and hour standards. Representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor's Region V office triage these complaints to the appropriate agencies for follow-up.

These attempts to reach workers have been seriously jeopardized by the actions of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security, which in July 2005 lured undocumented construction workers to a sham occupational safety and health meeting, where 48 were arrested and placed on a fast track for deportation.14 APHA as well as the AFL-CIO have strongly condemned this approach as creating yet another barrier to the promotion of occupational safety and health among immigrant workers.15

APHA has a record of supporting the protection of health and human rights of both documented and undocumented immigrants. Several resolutions have called for the protection of access to medical services for immigrants.10, 16, 17 APHA also has a history of protecting the rights to health and safety for undocumented immigrants illegally entering the United States.18

Therefore APHA recommends the following actions be taken:

1. Codify Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) policy that OSHA will not refer cases involving undocumented workers to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

2. Expand the policy of Region V of the Department of Labor nationally, to create initiatives in each region that permit OSHA and the Employment Standards Administration (ESA), two divisions of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), to collaborate with community, faith-based, and worker organizations that are trusted by immigrant communities to establish outreach centers to train workers about their rights and to identify and forward complaints without fear of identification or retaliation. DOL should develop a stable funding mechanism to support the outreach activity of these centers.

3. Strengthen whistleblower and anti-retaliation provisions to protect workers who exercise job safety rights and raise job safety concerns.

4. OSHA and NIOSH should enhance outreach, training and education programs for immigrant and Hispanic workers and employers to inform them of job safety rights and responsibilities, job hazards and protections. This would include a requirement from OSHA that compliance with existing hazardous training standards be interpreted to mean that employers are required to provide such training in meaningful interactive formats that include training in a language the individual understands and that follow-up measures for training effectiveness be developed and implemented. In addition, the OSHA notice of violations that is posted in the workplace should be in the language(s) spoken by the employees, as well as English.

5. Expand language capabilities of OSHA inspectors and other personnel to facilitate communication with and outreach to immigrant workers.

6. Target enforcement activities among industries, employers and operations where immigrant workers are at high risk of injury or illness and strengthened OSHA criminal and civil penalties. Additionally, develop a National Emphasis Program that targets record-keeping and training requirements as applied to temporary agencies and to work sites hiring day laborers. National Emphasis Programs allow OSHA to coordinate outreach and assistance to high hazard work places or work processes. Examples include silica exposure in construction and in general industry, and biomechanical hazards in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

7. OSHA should ensure that employers provide all required safety equipment free of charge to protect workers from hazardous conditions.

8. Urge that NIOSH expand intramural and extramural research programs to address the safety and health problems of immigrant and Hispanic workers. For example, NIOSH has funded several extramural research grants as part of the Environmental Justice initiative. These grants have funded joint community/university collaborations to improve safety and health for immigrant workers. NIOSH should continue to support these and similar initiatives.

9. Ensure that all workers have access to workers' compensation when injured on the job, regardless of immigration status, and are not penalized for filing workers' compensation claims. With regard to temporary employment situations, workers' compensation laws need to be clarified and strengthened to assure workers' have either coverage or the right of private action, regardless of immigration status.

10. Urge the Department of Labor to continue the National Agricultural Workers Survey so that the public and policy-makers are assured accurate information regarding migrant and seasonal farm workers.

11. Encourage labor unions and other worker organizations to continue to prioritize training and outreach activities related to protecting the safety and health of immigrant workers.

Implementation Steps:
1. APHA will engage in policy discussions on immigration and/or immigrant workers, on the federal and/or state level, to ensure that these important safety and health protections are part of the policy discussions.
2. APHA leadership will write letters to federal agencies, Congress, and other appropriate organizations to urge the implementation of the above recommendations to ensure the safety and health of immigrant workers.

1. Labor force characteristics of foreign-born workers in 2003, U.S. Department of Labor News Release December 1, 2004.
2. Sum A, Fogg N, Harrington P. Immigrant Workers and the Great American Job Machine: The Contributions of New Foreign Immigration to National and Regional Labor Force Growth in the 1990s. Boston: Northeastern University, Center for Labor Market Studies, August 2002.
3. Loh, K, Richardson S. Foreign-born workers: Trends in fatal occupational injuries, 1996-2001. Monthly Labor Review, 2004 127: 42-53
4. Richardson S, Ruser J, Suarez P. Hispanic Workers in the United States: An Analysis of Employment Distributions, Fatal Occupational Injuries, and Non-fatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses in National Research Council: Safety is Seguridad. Washington, D.C., National Academies Press, 2003.
5. Dong X, Platner J. Occupational fatalities of Hispanic construction workers from 1992 to 2000, Am J Ind Med 2004, 45:45-54.
6. Quaid L. Labor Dept. Halts Surveys of Farm Workers, Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2005.
7. United States Census Bureau, The foreign born population in 2003.
8. Tumpowsky CM, Davis LK, Rabin R. Elevated blood lead levels among adults in Massachusetts, 1991-1995. Public Health Reports Jul-Aug 2000, 115(4): 364-9.
9. American Public Health Association Policy Statement 2003-9: Workers Compensation Insurance. APHA Policy Statements, 1948-present, cumulative. Washington, D.C.: APHA.
10. American Public Health Association Policy Statement LB04-06: Responding to Threats to Health Care for Immigrants. APHA Policy Statements, 1948-present, cumulative. Washington, D.C.: APHA.
11. Passel J, Capps R, Fix M. Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures. Urban Institute, 2004 available at www.urban.org.
12. United States Department of Labor, Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey, research report #8, 2000.
13. Valenzuela A. Day-Labor Work. 2003, Annual Review of Sociology. 29(1)
14. Collins, Kristin. Illegal aliens at base jailed: Deportation likely for private workers at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. News and Observer, July 8, 2005, North Carolina.
15. Statement by AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson On False OSHA Meeting Used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in North Carolina Raid. July 14, 2005.
16. American Public Health Association Policy Statement 2001-23: Protection of the Health of Resident Immigrants in the United States. APHA Policy Statements, 1948-present, cumulative. Washington, D.C.: APHA.
17. American Public Health Association Policy Statement 9501: Opposition to Anti-Immigrant Statutes. APHA Policy Statements, 1948-present, cumulative. Washington, D.C.: APHA.
18. American Public Health Association Policy Statement 9924: Health and Human Rights Violations at the US-Mexico Border, APHA Policy Statements, 1948-present, cumulative. Washington, D.C.: APHA.