Immigrant Worker Safety and Health
  • 10-28-2008 | 05:02 PM
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Immigrant Worker Safety and Health

In the United States, immigrant workers constitute a significant proportion of the workforce.  In 2006, 15% of workers were foreign-born and at least 6.3 million were undocumented.  Immigrant workers face a disproportionate risk for workplace injury and illness.  This is due to a confluence of factors including an overrepresentation in the most hazardous industries including construction and agriculture.  Additionally, workplace safety interventions often do not reach immigrant worker populations due to barriers created by social, cultural, and economic issues including language, literacy, and marginal economic status.  Furthermore, immigrant workers often lack knowledge of their rights to workplace safety and are reluctant to pursue these rights.

All workers have an equal right to a safe and healthy workplace irrespective of their immigration status. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has initiated several targeted intramural and extramural programs aimed at identifying and eliminating safety and health hazards experienced by immigrant workers. Some examples include:

  • The NIOSH Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program identifies and studies work-related injury deaths, with the goal of identifying effective prevention measures. Through on-site investigations, NIOSH and cooperating states collect detailed circumstances for select incident types, including deaths of Hispanic workers since 2002.
  • Targeted research programs focused on the construction and agricultural sectors, both of which employ a disproportionate share of immigrant workers.
  • An occupational health disparities program, which is conducting research on the causes and prevention of occupational health disparities including those experienced by immigrant workers.
  • A Spanish language website and translation of several NIOSH publications into Spanish.
  • A National Academy of Science workshop requested by NIOSH on steps to improve Spanish language occupational safety and health materials. The report of the workshop Safety is Seguridad: A Workshop Summary can be found at:
  • An innovative information and communication effort with the Spanish-language television network Telemundo and other partners, in which construction safety messages were incorporated dramatically into a widely watched prime-time series, and supplemented with a public service announcement and a special website.

In addition to the projects mentioned above, NIOSH has funded a number of research grants targeting immigrant workers. The most comprehensive grant program has been the Environmental Justice & Community-Based Participatory Research. This program is funded collaboratively with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The purpose of the program has been to enable workers and community residents to more actively participate in the full spectrum of research. To achieve this goal, the program was designed to bring together three partners: a community organization, an environmental health researcher and a health care professional to develop models and approaches to building communication, trust, and capacity with the final goal of increasing community participation in the research process. Through this program, NIOSH has funded 10 projects which target a wide range of immigrant worker communities across the country. Summaries of the NIOSH and NIEHS Environmental Justice projects can be found at:

At the Safety, Health and Social Justice for Immigrant Workers - Lessons from the NIOSH Environmental Justice Projects session of the 2008 American Public Health Association's annual conference Public Health Without Borders (October 25-29), a panel will present the experiences from six of the environmental justice projects addressing safety and health concerns of immigrants working in farming, poultry processing, and restaurant and domestic work. Each presenter will provide insights about how notions of social justice are achieved through their work.

Through this session we hope to identify five major challenges to developing intervention studies targeting immigrant workers; discuss methods that can be used to promote improved social justice as part of safety and health intervention programs targeting immigrant workers; and define major strategies and obstacles to implementing successful community based interventions for occupational safety and health.

For those unable to attend the session, we would appreciate feedback through this blog. Specifically, what experience have others had with developing successful interventions for immigrant workers? Additionally, what types of materials are needed to better assist safety and health professional to provide information and training to foreign-born workers?

This blog originally appeared on the NIOSH Science Blog. It was authored by Sherry Baron, MD, MPH, as part of her official duties as an employee of NIOSH, a component of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United States Department of Health and Human Services. It is therefore considered a work of the United States and, in accordance with 17 U.S.C. 105, no copyright protection is available for such works.