Half of Latino workplace deaths in North Carolina are in construction
Three Latino construction workers fell to their deaths at a work site in Charlotte's Dilworth neighborhood on Monday. They are among at least 260 Latino workers who have died of workplace injuries in North Carolina since the year 2000, according to a study released last year.
Before lead researcher Morgan Richey became an epidemiologist at UNC Chapel Hill, he worked in construction, one of the nation’s deadliest industries for Latino men. That’s when he started wondering about occupational hazards and how they affected his Latino coworkers.
On bad weather days, when conditions were less safe, he noticed a trend.
“This is something I experienced about who goes on top of the roof on a windy day and who can say no,” Richey said. “Some folks can say no a little bit easier than others. And some people have got to keep the bills paid, got to keep the rent paid.”
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As a researcher, he wanted to understand how much risk Latino workers were facing in the state and how often Latinos were dying on the job.
To do that, he had a team scour autopsy records, police reports and witness statements from across the state. The researchers compiled thousands of records from 2000 to 2017. During that period, North Carolina’s Latino workforce grew by 226% to more than 400,000 workers.
But there were some immediate challenges with analyzing the data.
“Very often under ethnicity, it was blank or it had somebody's country of origin written in,” he said. “So, we had to do some significant data cleaning to try to figure out what's going on and searching for alternate sources of information to find out maybe if someone was Latino.”
Once they had their data sorted, it confirmed one of their suspicions.
In every year but one between 2000 and 2017, the rate of fatal occupational injuries was highest among Latinos.
“So that, of course, was very concerning,” Richey said.
They found construction and agriculture claimed the highest number of Latino lives. More than half of the 259 Latinos identified in the study were men who died working in construction. When looking at the number of workers who died per 100,000 people, Latino and Black construction workers had similar death rates.
Richey said there are signs in the data that indicate improvement in worker safety and a narrowing of disparities.
“Workplace death in the United States used to be very high. It is now very low,” he said. “But here in North Carolina, among Latino workers, the rate was very high in the early 2000s. Then it dropped to effectively the same as white and Black workers.”
From 2015 to 2017, however, Richey said worker death rates began to climb again for all workers in North Carolina.
“We're hoping that future funding will allow for continuing these surveillance studies to identify these signals, to see whether or not these rates are changing,” he said.
When it comes to workplace deaths, he added that he prefers to avoid the word accident, which implies these incidents are unavoidable.
“There are a lot of people who find that regulation is often very constrictive to them personally,” he said. “But I sort of remind them, these regulations are written in blood. Somebody paid the ultimate price. And we tried to learn from this.”
Regarding the deaths at the Hanover East Morehead apartments site earlier this week, the North Carolina Department of Labor said the case is an open investigation and declined to comment. The Hanover Company also did not respond to a request for comment.