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Latinos At Higher Risk For Workplace Injury

Melodie Edwards

Too many jobs, not enough bodies. That’s the dilemma of many Wyoming construction companies these days that can’t keep up with the building demands of the state’s energy boom. An influx of Latino workers are moving to Wyoming to take up the slack. And national figures show that Hispanics lead the nation in fatal injuries. And with Wyoming having one of the worst records for workplace fatalities, the question is: are Latinos putting themselves in the line of fire? 

On a quiet side street in Laramie, a crew of workmen are finishing up a new sidewalk. They’ve spent all morning cutting cement and are now spraying it down with a hose and scraping out the seams. Cement dust makes white stripes on the street where they’ve washed it away. The men aren’t wearing face masks even though silica dust is deadly to inhale. Sotero Munoz is 58-years-old. He says he tries to keep up with the young guys on the crew, but he just can’t.

“Well, I injured my back,” Munoz says. “My bones and my spine are wearing out. So, I can’t really move heavy things. With the little amount of time I have left, I realize that I have to rely on pain medication from Mexico in order to continue.”

In Mexico, Munoz didn’t do construction--he built furniture. But the company he works for hasn’t provided him with a lot of hands-on training. Mostly his boss addressed safety in the interview.

“So, he asked what I knew how to do,” Munoz says. “And I told him what I knew how to do, which is very different here and in Mexico, it's a different system. So, in any case, he told us to do things right, to be careful and when we see something bad or wrong, to tell the supervisor or to tell him.”

"I think we're going to continue to see Hispanic workers grow in the construction industry. One, is the Anglo worker is reducing in the construction industry. We have to adapt, we have to be able to understand to work with our folks."

Munoz’s story isn’t uncommon around Wyoming. As the energy industry has boomed, so has the Latino population. According to the US census, the number of Latinos has grown in Wyoming by 60-percent since 2000. There are now over 56,000 Hispanics in Wyoming. With Wyoming’s low unemployment rate, they’re snagging high paying construction and energy jobs that others aren’t applying for.

Rick Reubelt is Director of Environmental Health and Safety for Haselden Construction, the company just awarded the job of building Laramie’s new high school. He says they’re looking to the Hispanic population to find workers.

“I think we’re going to continue to see Hispanic workers grow in the construction industry,” Reubelt says.  “One, is the Anglo worker is reducing in the construction industry. We have to adapt, we have to be able to understand to work with our folks. And we’re obligated under OSHA standards to make sure our crew mates and team members understand in their language.”

Nationally, Hispanic fatal injuries exceeded all US workers by 35-percent. And studies show that Hispanics are more likely than other workers to encounter barriers to occupational safety such as a limited knowledge of English and worker safety laws. With employment in Wyoming dominated by high risk industries, a state expert says the number of Hispanics that are hurt or killed could rise rapidly. 

“If you look at the employment in Wyoming,” State Epidemiologist Mack Sewell says, “there’s a dominance in Wyoming of some high risk industries—agriculture, mining, oil and gas, construction. I think many of those are industries that will attract Hispanic workers.”

So far this year, he says two Latinos have already died in Wyoming’s oil and gas industry. But he says the fatalities don’t tell you everything.

“What you don’t hear much discussion about are the nonfatal injuries. You know there’s been a lot of attention on oil and gas but if you look at the total number of hospitalizations, construction leads the pack.”

Trench cave-ins, electrical accidents, slips and falls, exposure to dangerous substances like silica dust--all are leading causes of construction injuries. Haselden Construction’s Rick Reubelt says he expects to need more bilingual trainers in the next few years to keep his Latino workers safe in such a risky industry. 

Along those lines, Wyoming Workforce Services is updating their website to include training videos in Spanish. They also keep several translators on staff to help Latinos fill out forms and answer questions.  But what Wyoming is not doing is collecting data about Latino injuries and deaths. State Epidemiologist Sewell says the only way to get that would be sorting by hand through worker’s compensation claims for Hispanic surnames. But University of Wyoming Law Professor Michael Duff says this wouldn’t provide reliable data.

“Wyoming specifically excludes undocumented workers from coverage under the statute,” Duff says. “One of only two states to do that.”

So what that means is that undocumented Hispanic injuries aren’t counted. The other problem is that Wyoming employers have to foot the bill for those injured workers. 

“A couple of years ago,” Duff says, “there was an undocumented worker that brought a tort case, personal injury case in the federal district court in Cheyenne and won. Won, I think a couple million dollar verdict, which you wouldn’t be able to get under worker’s compensation because of the limited remedies.”

And it’s a more endemic problem for Wyoming in general because, as Duff says, “Somebody’s going to pay.  So if you have a worker who is not covered under worker’s compensation, okay, what happens? Well, their families are not going to have money coming in and they’re going to become wards in one way or another of the state. And this was the original economic justification for having a worker’s compensation system.”

Duff says there’s good reasons why every other state in the nation offers worker’s compensation to undocumented workers. “Because the more people you exclude from the risk pool, the less you’re able to spread risk and the higher the remaining insured population, the higher their premiums are. So you want to include as many people in the system as you possibly can.”

And since Wyoming doesn’t track Latinos workplace injuries, it’s hard to tell if this influx of workers is actually on the front lines of Wyoming’s dangerous industries. But experts say, it appears that they are. And since the undocumented aren’t covered by worker’s compensation, an injury could become extremely costly for Wyoming employers.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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