Immigrant job deaths up 14% in two years

May 8, 2013

(Photo courtesy of Velia Carbot)
Temporary worker Carlos Centeno, photographed with his partner Velia Carbot, died in 2011 from burns he suffered in a Chicago-area factory. He was one of 843 U.S. immigrants who died from a work injury that year.

The number of job fatalities among U.S. immigrants is increasing, a WBEZ analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data has found.

Foreign-born worker deaths rose 13.9 percent from 2009 to 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Fatal injuries of U.S.-born workers during the period edged up just 1.0 percent.

Of the 843 immigrants who died from job injuries in 2011, Mexicans accounted for 349 (41.4 percent). The second largest group was Salvadoran, a nationality that accounted for 40 (4.7 percent) of the deaths. Next on the list were Guatemalan, Honduran and Indian immigrants — all with 24 (2.8 percent).

Immigrants constituted 18.0 percent of the country’s 4,693 workers who suffered fatal job injuries in 2011. The annual percentage had increased each year going back to 2008, when foreign-born workers accounted for 16.0 percent of job fatalities.

Muzaffar Chishti, who directs the Migration Policy Institute office at New York University, says the immigrant fatality increase could be more than a statistical anomaly.

“As recession has taken hold, employers have tightened their belt,” Chishti said. “And many of the labor standards, especially related to safety, go out the window.”

Chishti also points to factors that inhibit immigrants from defending their workplace rights. Many foreign-born workers face language barriers. And many end up working for temporary agencies or other employers that can easily replace them.

The most vulnerable immigrants lack authorization to be in the United States — making them even less likely to speak up for their rights, Chishti said, because they fear their bosses will turn them over to immigration authorities.

Immigrant temporary workers who suffered a fatal job injury in 2011 included Chicago resident Carlos Centeno, 50, a Mexican native scalded by nearly boiling acid in a Bedford Park factory. A WBEZ and Center for Public Integrity investigation of Centeno’s case found that the federal government is not keeping close track of temp-worker injuries.

Immigrants in the country illegally are also more likely to work in dangerous industries, such as construction and meatpacking, Chishti said.

The AFL-CIO highlighted immigrant worker fatalities Tuesday in an annual safety report. “Fatalities among foreign-born or immigrant workers continue to be a serious problem,” the report said.

In Illinois, 38 immigrants died from job injuries in 2011. The state number had ranged from 23 to 42 since 2006.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.