Every morning at 3am, Francisco Sunun arrives at a fish market in Long Beach to clean. He applies bleach and a strong acid product to remove fish scales, meat and fat that sticks to the floors, counters and walls. By 4am, after only an hour of exposure to the cleaning products, his head starts to hurt. Soon, his eyes become itchy and he gets a sore throat. Some days, he gets a bloody nose, can barely talk and feels he can barely breathe. “We told our bosses that the chemicals were too strong,” says Sunun, an undocumented worker from Chiapas, Mexico. “They said they would try to fix it, but they haven’t done anything.”
For now, Sunun, 38, takes a nap when he arrives home in the afternoon and soon feels better. But he’s worried that the long-term effects of the chemicals won’t be so easy to overcome, fearing that one day the symptoms might evolve into a permanent illness. Sunun isn’t even sure what medical condition he might have. He doesn’t have health insurance, and he doesn’t make enough from his low hourly wage to afford to see a doctor. He doesn’t want to change jobs either because stable employment is hard to find in the current economy.
Sunun’s situation is common for many Latino workers in the U.S. The problem spans across many industries. Janitors and housekeepers are exposed to heavy levels of chemicals from cleaning products and don’t know how to protect themselves. Warehouse and slaughterhouse workers fall through the cracks of health and safety regulations and are prone to serious injury. Farm workers inhale or absorb pesticides used on crops and end up with skin problems or bad neurological effects. They also die from heat stroke.
Day laborers are also at risk because employers who hire on an informal basis are less likely to provide adequate protection against chemicals or injury, says Tony Bernabe, an organizer for immigrant workers at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. These employers—often homeowners who pick up day laborers waiting on street corners—are known to provide cheap masks or no protection at all for workers who use strong chemicals for flooring, painting or other home construction projects. “If the employers aren’t providing the right conditions, workers should go somewhere else,” says Bernabe. “They shouldn’t have contamination in their bodies just to make some money.”
Hispanic workers, especially those who are born outside the U.S., have the highest fatality rates of any ethic group, according to Sherry Baron at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH. There is a lack of reliable statistics for health problems and non-fatal accidents because undocumented workers tend not to report such issues for fear of losing their jobs. Like Sunun, many who suffer non-fatal problems don’t seek medical assistance. In 2007, just over half of employed Latinos had health insurance through their employers, compared with 73% of white workers, according to the Hispanic civil rights organization National Council of La Raza.
So what is being done to try to protect Latino workers more? Many activists and non-profit organizations organize training and education programs so Hispanic workers can learn their rights in the workplace and can know how to protect themselves from hazards. “There’s a lot of information about chemicals that an employer can use to decide what measures can be taken so people aren’t exposed,” says Deogracia Cornelio, associate director of education at UCLA’s Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program. “They can do training, they can give people breaks, and they can put into place practices that eliminate the hazards.” But are employers doing this? For the most part, no, Cornelio says. “These people fall into a gray area where nobody’s responsible for them,” she says.
Also, officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, which is part of the Department of Labor, enforce regulations aimed at keeping workers safe. The problem is, however, that OSHA doesn’t have enough inspectors to keep tabs on all employers, says Baron, who is coordinator of occupational health disparities at NIOSH. “The number of inspectors that OSHA has makes it very difficult to do systematic enforcement,” she says. Often, officials find out about health and safety problems after an injury or fatality has already occurred. “You don’t want to find problems because a worker died,” Baron says. “That’s certainly not prevention.”
For more on Latino efforts for healthier workplaces and neighborhoods, read "And environmental justice for all."
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.