The hottest workplace safety and health issue in Washington at the moment is mounting pressure to do a better job of protecting immigrants and other low-wage workers.

A Senate subcommittee held a hearing in late February on what to do to reduce job-related deaths, injuries and illnesses among immigrant workers and other low-wage earners.

"It is simply unacceptable that fatalities for Latino workers increased by more than 11 percent in the year 2000," said Sen. Ted Kennedy in a statement. "It is not right that more than one-quarter of workers in the meatpacking industry, primarily immigrants, experience a serious injury or illness on the job. It is outrageous that child farm workers, who make up only eight percent of working minors, account for 40 percent of work-related fatalities among minors."

In addition, nearly every one of the 350 mostly immigrant day laborers who worked at ground zero of the World Trade Center rescue, recovery and cleanup operation examined by the New York Committee on Safety and Health, suffered from respiratory problems, according to Kennedy.

Kennedy slammed the Department of Labor for proposing to slash budget money by 65 percent for training programs that would benefit immigrant workers, among others. He also pushed for tougher standards to protect farm workers, and policies to protect immigrant workers from unfair retaliation when they report unsafe working conditions.

OSHA chief John Henshaw has said his agency doesn't plan to recommend new legislation or administrative penalties to improve safety, but rather refocus current methods and procedures.

OSHA has taken several steps to blunt criticism that it is ignoring the needs of workers on the low rungs of the job ladder. A new section on OSHA's Web site is designed for Spanish-speaking employers and employees, where workers can file complaints.

And OSHA's toll-free help line for complaints and information has been updated to include Spanish-language services.

Additionally, OSHA this week formed an alliance with the Hispanic Contractors of America, Inc. (HCA) to promote safe and healthful working conditions for Hispanic construction workers.

In the spotlight

A New York area newspaper, Newsday, turned the spotlight on immigrant safety in an investigative series last summer that reported that at least 874 immigrant worker deaths had gone unreviewed by safety officials in the 1990s.

Hispanic workplace deaths are much higher than for other groups. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 849 foreign-born workers were killed on the job nationwide in 2000. Of those, 494 or 58 percent were of Hispanic or Latino origin.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who is herself an immigrant from Taiwan who grew up in the Queens borough of New York City, said, "Too many of these workers, especially Spanish-speaking workers, have experienced on-the-job injuries and illnesses."

Labor officials will be "renewing relationships" with police, fire departments and local health agencies to make sure OSHA is alerted when immigrants are killed, according to Chao.

At the Senate hearing, the National Safety Council's Bobby Jackson, vice president for national programs, said, "There is a large and unfilled demand among Hispanic-based community organizations for user-friendly, linguistically appropriate and culturally sensitive materials to address the safety and health problems disproportionately affecting Hispanic workers and their families."

Verbal training and on-the-job demonstrations of safe work procedures are needed to better inform, educate and protect immigrant workers with low literacy skills, said Jackson. Culturally sensitive and specially targeted materials should be available for various Spanish dialects. Checklists designed to evaluate the working level of employees should be available to small and medium-sized employers, he said.

Developing these materials and training programs will require public-private partnerships, Jackson said. Such partnerships would help to develop the infrastructure to deliver safety and health products and services to workers and their communities and to build the capacity of community-based organizations to provide safety, health and environmental services to immigrants.