Last month in Houston, over 1,000 people convened at the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety, OSHA’s latest and most impressive effort to tackle the problem of disproportionate rates of on-the-job injury and death among Latino Americans.

The Summit opened with a panel of Latino workers who had been injured on the job. Included and wearing an orange LiUNA! shirt was Jose Urrea (see video below), a Tucson construction worker who worked for Pulte Homes. He was given a faulty nail gun that shot a nail through four of his fingers. Not knowing about workers’ compensation and his need to report injuries (and afraid that he would get fired if he did), he left work, pulled the nail out, bandaged his hand and drove three hours to his home town in Mexico for treatment.   Also on the panel were hotel workers, farm workers and other service workers, all with stories of injuries on the job. This panel and powerful speeches from Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Assistant Secretary for OSHA Dr. David Michaels and Dolores Huerta, one of the founders of the United Farm Workers Union, set the tone for the conference. It was all about giving workers more voice in their workplaces and more power to speak up about unsafe conditions.

The opening plenary session was followed by a set of ten workshops about successful programs. In one workshop, for instance, employers talked about what they did to reach out to Latino workers. One company made an effort to hire more bilingual supervisors. Another paired up new workers on their sites with mentors called “Maestros.” A third had bilingual workers wear a purple triangle sticker on their hardhat so Spanish-speaking workers would instantly know who to see if they had a problem. An anthropologist from NIOSH also discussed the cultural barriers faced by immigrant Latino workers.

The conference was attended by representatives from the Mexican consulates in the U.S. They have started a program called Ventanillas Salud – Health Windows – at 40 consulates. At these windows Mexican workers can get health information, including information on jobsite safety and health. The consulates are working closely with NIOSH to reach out to Mexicans living in the U.S. They also have protection offices to advise workers of their rights to safe workplaces and proper wages. One consulate in Los Angeles has recovered over $7 million in back wages for workers over the past five years.

On the second day of the conference, a panel hosted by Maria Hinojosa of National Public Radio’s Latino USA included the President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, a Vice President of SEIU, a construction contractor and a representative of a worker advocacy group in Austin, TX. They had an impassioned discussion about how to move the country forward toward better protection for immigrant workers, including passing comprehensive immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act and the Protecting America’s Workers Act.

On the second day, regional workshops focused on creating connections between OSHA, worker groups, unions and others in each area of the country. Other major speakers included Mark Ayers, President of the Building and Construction Trades Department, Dr. John Howard, head of NIOSH and Maria Elena Durazo, Secretary-Treasurer of the LA County AFL-CIO.

The large crowd left energized and ready for action, which was the intent of the Summit. Latinos received a clear message that they have a right to a safe workplace and that the Federal government is working hard to ensure their right.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]