Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao told participants at the first-ever Hispanic Safety and Health Summit that the Bush administration is committed to further driving down workplace fatalities among Hispanics, which in 2002 dropped for the first time in seven years.

The summit was held in Orlando in late July.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Hispanic Worker Safety, made up of 25 worker advocacy groups, stayed away from the meeting, protesting that it was "a blatant election year play for Hispanic votes."

“This is clearly not a serious effort to address the epidemic of workplace injuries and illnesses suffered by our community,” said Jayesh Rathod, Staff Attorney of CASA of Maryland. "Planners chose not to invite groups like ours because they knew we would raise serious concerns about the administration’s dismantling of workplace safety rules,” Rathod added.

“This summit demonstrates the commitment of this administration and the Department of Labor to protecting the health and safety of our nation’s diverse Hispanic workforce,” Secretary Chao said.

“We have come to Orlando to get feedback, to hear new ideas, to explore best practices for reaching Hispanic workers,” said OSHA chief John Henshaw. “We want to share what we're doing, but more importantly, we want to listen to others who can suggest additional strategies.”

Protesters want the agency to do more than listen. “OSHA has failed to take even the small step of clarifying that employers must pay for required personal protective equipment,” noted Jackie Nowell, director of Occupational Safety and Health for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. “For the low-wage workers that we represent, many of whom are immigrants, the extra money taken out of their paychecks for necessary safety equipment is very significant,” she added.

Immigrant advocates also pointed out that the summit lacked the participation of key leaders in the field of Hispanic health and safety. “NIOSH — the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — was initially involved in the planning, but it seems that OSHA did not want their participation,” noted Tom O’Connor of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “NIOSH has a wealth of expertise on Hispanic worker safety and should have been a key participant,” O’Connor said.

Hispanic workers are more likely than the general population to be killed, injured or become ill on the job. Fifteen percent of the workers who died in 2002 were Hispanic, even though Hispanics comprise less than 13 percent of the workforce. About 17.5 million Hispanic employees are in the U.S. workforce.