Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
Jorge Miranda roofs a house in Belleview, Neb. Falls are the most common cause of death among Mexican-born workers.

The jobs that lure Mexican workers to the United States are killing them in a worsening epidemic that is now claiming a victim a day, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Though Mexicans often take the most hazardous jobs, they are more likely than others to be killed even when doing similarly risky work.

The death rates are greatest in several Southern and Western states, where a Mexican worker is four times more likely to die than the average U.S.-born worker.

These accidental deaths are almost always preventable and often gruesome: Workers are impaled, shredded in machinery, buried alive. Some are 15 years old.

For the first such study of Mexican worker deaths in the United States, The AP talked with scores of workers, employers and government officials and analyzed years of federal safety and population statistics.

Among the findings:

• Mexican death rates are rising even as the U.S. workplace grows safer overall. In the mid-1990s, Mexicans were about 30 percent more likely to die than native-born workers; now they are about 80 percent more likely.

• Deaths among Mexicans in the United States increased faster than their population. As the number of Mexican workers grew by about half, from 4 million to 6 million, the number of deaths rose by about two-thirds, from 241 to 387. Deaths peaked at 420 in 2001.

• Though their odds of dying in the Southeast and parts of the West are far greater than the U.S. average, fatalities occur everywhere: Mexicans died cutting North Carolina tobacco and Nebraska beef, felling trees in Colorado and welding a balcony in Florida, trimming grass at a Las Vegas golf course and falling from scaffolding in Georgia.

• Even compared to other immigrants, what's happening to Mexicans is exceptional in scope and scale. Mexicans are nearly twice as likely as the rest of the immigrant population to die at work.

Why is all this happening?

Public safety officials and workers themselves say the answer comes down to this: Mexicans are hired to work cheap, the fewer questions the better.

They may be thrown into jobs without training or safety equipment. Their objections may be silent if they speak no English or are here illegally. And their work culture and Third World safety expectations don't discourage risk-taking.

Federal and state safety agencies have started to recognize the problem. But they have limited resources — only a few Spanish-speaking investigators work in regions with hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals — and often can't reach the most vulnerable Mexican workers.

President Bush's recent proposal to grant illegal immigrants temporary legal protections energized the national immigration debate. Yet in these discussions, job safety has been an afterthought. Meanwhile, Mexicans continue to die on the job.

Hazardous conditions

Eighteen-year-old Carlos Huerta fell to his death as he built federal low-income housing in North Carolina.

His bosses ignored basic work safety rules, according to state inspectors, when they put him in a trash container that wasn't secured to the raised prongs of a forklift. It soon toppled.

In 2002, the year Huerta was killed, more Mexicans died in construction than any other industry — and more died from fatal falls than any other accident.

A year ago in South Carolina, brothers Rigouerto and Moses Xaca Sandoval died building a suburban high school that, at 15 and 16, they might have attended. They were buried in a trench when the walls of sandy soil collapsed.

The United States offered these three teens wages 10 times higher than in Mexico. They offered their employers cheap, pliant labor. For safety violations that led to these deaths, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined employers $50,475.

Accidents like these suggest that employers assign Mexicans to the most glaringly perilous tasks, says Susan Feldmann, who fields calls from Spanish-speaking workers for an institute within the federal Centers for Disease Control.

"They're considered disposable," she says.

But employers are not always at fault, some safety officials say.

Though he was trained and wearing required safety gear, Jesus Soto Carbajal severed his jugular vein with a carving knife in a Nebraska meatpacking plant. The blade punctured his chest just above the protective metal mesh.

Federal safety officials didn't fine the employer, though they did recommend fundamental changes in the work routine. A plant spokesman says that since the accident in 2000, workers wear larger protective tunics.

Mexican worker deaths were also concentrated in agriculture.

When Urbano Ramirez suffered a nose bleed picking North Carolina tobacco, his supervisor prescribed shade rest. Ramirez's body was found 10 days later. A medical examiner said he died of unknown natural causes, the body too decomposed for a definitive finding. His brother suspects heat stroke.

Like Ramirez, many deceased workers came with little more than a grade-school education — and often left behind large families.

Criminal charges are rare, fines more typical. One exception is a California dairyman who faces involuntary manslaughter charges after two of his workers drowned in liquid cow manure.

Jose Alatorre was overcome by fumes from the fetid stew as he tried to fix a pump at the bottom of a 30-foot concrete shaft. His partner died trying to save him.

Both men were full-time workers but, according to prosecutors, were given no safety training and no safety equipment to deal with the predictably hazardous air.

The deaths received a burst of attention in early 2001, but 18 months later in the same small town, a third Mexican-born worker died in the same way at another dairy.

Sobering statistics

The AP's investigation focused on 1996 through 2002, the most recent set of worker death data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those were years when the economic boom coaxed about 1 million Mexicans beyond the border states, according to government estimates.

During those years, the analysis showed, Mexicans were increasingly more likely to die on the job than U.S. workers of any race.

The annual death rate for Mexicans increased to the point that about 1 in 16,000 workers died. Meanwhile, for the average U.S.-born worker, the rate steadily decreased to about 1 in 28,000.

Mexicans now represent about 1 in 24 workers in the United States, but about 1 in 14 workplace deaths.

Workplace fatalities had distinct regional patterns:

CALIFORNIA AND TEXAS: These states, where generations of Mexicans have developed strong support networks, still rank atop the annual number of Mexican worker deaths — but their numbers have steadied or fallen recently. Though low relative to other states, the death rate for Mexican workers in California is still greater than the average for U.S.-born workers.

SOUTH: In the bloc of states from Louisiana to Maryland, the Mexican death rate averaged about 1 in 6,200 workers — four times that of native-born workers. Total deaths more than tripled from 27 in 1996 to 94 in 2002 in the South (excluding Texas), where some states saw Mexican populations triple to more than 100,000 workers.

WEST: Outside California, deaths in Western states increased from 41 to 58, and death rates hovered above the national average. Colorado and Washington stood out with consistently high rates.

MIDWEST: The number of Mexicans killed annually doubled between 1996 and 2002, from 19 to 38; death rates were slightly above the national average for Mexicans.

NORTHEAST: The region has the fewest Mexicans, but death rates still far exceeded American worker averages. Total annual deaths rose from eight to 17.

Construction was the deadliest industry. Across the nation, about 1 in 3,100 Mexican construction laborers died at work, a rate notably greater than native-born white and black construction laborers, though in line with the rate for native-born Hispanics.

Most deaths avoidable

Federal and state safety officials are starting to grapple with the problem.

OSHA Director John Henshaw points to Spanish-language materials the agency has put on its Web site, as well as the agency's Hispanic Taskforce, which coordinates outreach.

The greatest frustration is that so many deaths are avoidable.

"Ninety-five to 99 percent of the time, there's going to be noncompliance with a standard that could have prevented the fatality," says Joe Reina, the No. 2 OSHA official for Texas and neighboring states and a leader of the Hispanic Taskforce.

Still, Reina holds workers partly responsible.

"They just don't know that they have rights and responsibilities," Reina says, including the ability to complain against employers.

Explaining those rights is one thing, enforcing them another. Some of OSHA's own officials say their resources are insufficient and note the agency's own policies generally provide for punitive action only after an accident. It's unclear what Bush's guest-worker program, if approved, would do for worker safety.

As OSHA works to improve safety, language remains a barrier. By the agency's own count, there are no Spanish-speaking inspectors or accident investigators in the half of Georgia that includes immigrant-rich Atlanta. Some other Southern cities do have Spanish-fluent enforcement officials.

In its eight-state Southeastern region, OSHA has a single Spanish-speaking outreach worker. Marilyn Velez encourages workers and employers to avoid unsafe practices.

It's not easy. Some wary workers see Velez as a police officer; others, having survived abject poverty in rural Mexico and dangerous border crossing, feel they don't need her.

"They are looking at you like, 'Are you crazy? I have done worse things,' " Velez says. "It's just the way they see risk."

Sometimes the lessons do register. But America's Mexican labor force is constantly in flux. Workers graduate to safer jobs, or perhaps they move back home. Their replacements may be the next victims.


Contributing: Julie Reed