Maria E. Gutierrez

Stolen Lives Cannot Be Recovered

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On April 28, Interfaith Worker Justice, Instituto del Progreso Latino, OSHA Region 5, and the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, joined efforts and prayers to honor all those workers that have died as a consequence of what they do for a living. In a room with more than 75 people of various ages, from high school students to adult workers, we heard with deep sadness that there were 4,628 fatalities in the workplace in 2012, out of which 748 were Hispanic/Latino workers. During the first three months of 2014, 235 workers were killed on the job, 19 of which lived in Illinois. In addition to fatal injuries, hundreds of workers die from illnesses caused by their job.

Following the teachings of Mother Jones, on this day we pray for all those victims and to honor them we reinforce our fight for safer workplaces to protect the living.

As advocates for worker’s rights, we often emphasize the dignity and respect that every person deserves, but on International Workers Memorial Day, we reflect of some employers' lack of respect for human life itself. Occupational fatalities are crimes against workers. One death in the workplace is one too many!

Last year, the owner of Black Mag LLC in Colebrook, N.H. was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him five to ten years in prison for willful actions and careless attention to safety that caused an explosion killing two workers at the plant.

“The employer recklessly ignored basic safety measures that would have protected their lives," OSHA's Dr. David Michaels said. "His criminal conviction and sentence won’t bring these men back to life, but it will keep him from putting workers' lives in peril. And it should drive home to employers this message: Worker safety can never be sacrificed for the benefit of production, and workers’ lives are not—and must never be—considered part of the cost of doing business.”

Every preventable fatality is a life stolen for the benefit of production. Because stolen lives cannot be recovered we must join forces to ensure safer workplaces for all workers and to ensure that employers are held accountable for the safety of their employees. I firmly reject the concept that safety is not profitable. A human life has no price and there is no product or service worth the lives of our brothers and sisters.

IWJ visits Worker Center in Arkansas for Health and Safety training

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It was inspiring, being in front of a group of 24 true worker-leaders and advocates last weekend. I witnessed their leadership, enthusiasm, eagerness to learn, teach and share. Every moment at the eight-hour training was an opportunity to learn and teach for of us in the room.

Ark. Train the trainerThe new group of health and safety trainers in Northwest Arkansas was diverse in more ways than one. Latino, Marshallese and white workers from many industries including poultry and meatpacking, food processing, candle making, recycling, sanitation, construction and landscaping. And, of course, staunch worker rights advocates joined us.

Only six Latino workers of the 24 participants last weekend said they had received safety training from their employers, adding that it was presented only in English. With this new group of trainers, the worker center will be able to complete a statewide survey about the poultry industry and will reach out to worker for trainings in the languages they understand.

Following a popular education approach, workers and staff joined the training session. IWJ’s new national organizer, Janel Bailey, said she was fascinated with the active participation at the training. When we could hear the cacophony of many workers all talking at once during the small group activities, speaking of their own experiences, preparing short presentations, or asking questions, Janel referred to it as the “sound of popular education.”

I say it was inspiring because it reaffirms that in spite of the “right-to-work” (for less) law in Arkansas, and the many large corporations that call the state home, workers know there is hope for change when there is worker power. The Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center and its staff are committed to improving the leadership of members, and improving the working conditions of all workers.

At the end of the training when workers were receiving their certificates, a reporter from the local Univision station came to take pictures of the training. These trainings are important events for the local community, and are important for all those workers learning how to become peer- trainers for their co-workers.

At NY State fair dairy workers call for fair working conditions

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“Sharing the bounty and pride of NY” was the slogan of this summer’s New York State Fair, held in Syracuse from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2. The slogan referred to the abundance of agricultural and dairy goods produced in the state. But some dairy workers I met were wondering, why the great bounty of New York wasn’t shared with them? Why are these working conditions so poor and inhumane?

The abuses and exploitation of low-wage and immigrant workers is well documented. I do not cry easily, but when I visited these workers, I couldn’t help but well up with tears when I saw outrageous examples of abuse to immigrants working on dairy farms in upstate New York. At these dairy farms, animals are treated like machines, but workers are also treated so inhumanely.

After a 12-hour workday, many workers sleep on the floor of a trailer that houses 10-12 workers. During those long shifts some workers make room for a 15-minute lunch break because even in the few cases where they are told that they have 30 minutes for lunch, the pace of their work doesn’t permit much time to feed themselves because they must feed or milk the animals. They rest on the floor or in shared beds. Workers are paid $7.25 per hour, and after they are fired or leave the workplace, employers tell them to come back to collect their final paycheck (which often goes unpaid because of the limited time off, long distances, and lack of transportation the workers have).

DairyWhile visitors went to fair attractions, I gave a training on workplace health and safety to a small group of dairy workers. Many of them feared that they would get in trouble for wanting to learn about their rights, so we did the training in secret. Workers made room for the training in the little time they had off.

Workers shared stories about how they work among hazards from animals, machines, equipment, wet and slippery surfaces, and extreme weather conditions. They receive no training on workplace safety and there is no buddy system. Also, workers are forced to buy their own personal protective equipment such as rubber boots and gloves. Workers are told that injuries and accidents are part of the job, and that they should “toughen it out”. 

We cannot accept unwritten job descriptions and work practices that normalize workplace injuries. We cannot accept that injured workers are often left alone until a worker from the next shift finds them, badly injured or even dead under equipment or animal hooves.

We must work together to change the frequent causes of injuries: long shifts, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, lack of training, faulty machinery and equipment, and lack of personal protective equipment.

So, if we want to talk about "sharing pride and bounty", we must demand that farm owners treat their workers with dignity, pay them fair wages, and provide humane working and living conditions to their workers.

Photo Courtesy of Central New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO


Prayers Today on Worker Memorial Day

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Worker advocates are steeped in the debate to bring about real immigration reform. The possibility of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, work authorization, driver licenses and other essential benefits are on the table. Safer workplaces is also a core element to bringing about real reform that honors the contributions of our immigrant brothers and sisters… and is a matter of life or death for thousands of hard working immigrants in America.

The American dream for some immigrant workers fatally ends on their first day at work. Irresponsible employers and unsafe workplaces are the main reason behind those deaths. In 2011, 4,609 workers died in on the job, 16 percent of those fatalities were foreign-born workers. A broken immigration system leaves workers unprotected and allows unethical employers to abuse these workers to fatal extremes.

Hundreds of the fatalities are reported as "NN" (an unidentified immigrant worker that dies in the workplace), while family members wait in their home country with no knowledge of the tragedy. Many fatality reports are recording with sparse information about the victim such as: “male” and “cause of death: fall from roof”

In 2013, a Raani Corporation worker, 50 years-old Carlos Centeno, died after falling on a 500-gallon tank filled with acid solution, as reported by Chip Mitchell on WBEZ. According to the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration of the Department of Labor, employers are required to protect workers from known hazards. The argument “he knew or reasonably should have known of the possible risks of personal injury” should apply to employer. Deaths in the workplace should never be explained as involuntary suicide as Raani Corporation put it by saying: “by voluntarily undertaking to work with such substances, [Centeno] elected to accept such possible risks.”

But not only immigrant workers die in the workplace; from the 4,690 fatalities in the U.S. in 2010, 774 were foreign-born workers.  According to the Occupational Safety Health Administration regulations, employers are required to protect ALL workers from known hazards.

Let’s join hands in prayer on Workers Memorial Day today for all those workers whose lives are taken by unethical employers and unsafe workplaces. Let’s keep up the fight to protect all workers from wrongful occupational injuries and fatalities. Let’s keep up the fight to make employers accountable for those deaths.

Click here to download a Litany in memory of those who have died on the job and in hope for strong workplace safety regulations and enforcement for the safety of immigrant and native workers all across the U.S.

Click here to download a Prayer remembering those who have died on the job, especially our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Remembering Workplace Safety

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In the U.S., the rate of fatal work injuries has not decreased for the last three years, even though employers are required by law to provide a workplace free of known hazards. This week, we remember all those workers killed or injured in the workplace. 

 We will remember fallen workers like:

  • Two 14-year-old girls were electrocuted in a field by a pivot irrigator in Tampico, Ill.
  • Two brothers, 16 and 22, died from exposure to fumes in a confined space while working at a compost center in Lamont, Calif.
  • In Illinois, two teenage boys, 14 and 19, suffocated when trapped 30 feet deep in corn; the teens were “walking down the corn” to make it flow while the machine was running.
  • In Oklahoma, two 17-year-olds suffered leg amputations after they became caught in an inadequately guarded grain conveyor while cleaning out a grain storage structure.

This week, we will do as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones said, “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Construction, transportation, warehousing, agriculture, forestry are some of the most dangerous industries. Most of the occupational fatalities are preventable due to:

  • An employer’s negligence to establish effective controls
  • Lack of proper training on how to perform the job
  • Safe use of tools and equipment, and on health and safety; long working hours
  • Employment of teenagers under 18 to perform hazardous jobs.

HS trainingInterfaith Worker Justice offers OSHA funded workplace health and safety trainings during the year. Workers from around the country can know their workplace rights and train their coworkers.

The path to safer workplaces includes new regulations, stricter enforcement of existing regulations, and employers and employees training among other actions. 

Saturday, April 28, is International Workers Memorial Day, and unions, worker justice organizations, activists, religious groups and worker centers are organizing and participating in actions to continue the fight for safe workplaces. Join IWJ affiliates and allies this week!

Maria E. Gutierrez is Interfaith Worker Justice’s national Health and Safety Coordinator. She coordinates and leads IWJ’s OSHA funded workplace safety trainings. Contact Maria for information regarding IWJ's next health and safety training.

Learning life-saving lessons

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At the beginning of IWJ’s train-the-trainers workshop yesterday, I asked workers, “Que haces para ganarte la vida?” meaning, “What do you do for a living?”

As usual, their responses were some of the most dangerous jobs out there, typical for immigrant and low-wage workers.

Then, I asked them another question for which I didn’t need an answer—just their reflection, “Que haces cada dia que te ponga en riesgo de perder tu vida en el sitio de trabajo?” I asked, “What do you do everyday that can make you lose your life while at the workplace?”

IWJ healthsaftey trainingThe Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides funding for these trainings each year. Yesterday's session was the third training session for 2012, and more are set for later this year. The nine community leaders and organizers from Chicago and Cincinnati who attended the workshop are now ready to spread the word among their coworkers, and to advocate for health and safety in the workplace.

Training topics include:

  • Hazard identification in the workplace
  • The hierarchy of hazards control,
  • Worker health and safety rights
  • How to take action and negotiate for safer working conditions.

Workers should not die on the job; their jobs should not make them sick or leave them disabled. A good job is a safe job that pays fair. Often, employers of immigrant and low-income workers keep this information from workers even though they are required by law to provide the safest possible workplace, communicate any possible hazards workers might encounter in their workday and to help them be protected from any risks.

It still amazes me that workers in the U.S. need to be taught that they have the right to a workplace free of known hazards. Workers should not die on the job; their jobs should not make them sick or leave them disabled. A good job is a safe job that pays fair.

Maria E. Gutierrez is Interfaith Worker Justice’s national Health and Safety Coordinator. She coordinates and leads IWJ’s OSHA funded workplace safety trainings. Contact Maria for information regarding IWJ's next health and safety training.