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Augusta Chronicle

Specialist Lets Hispanics Know Safety Rights

BY Brian Basinger

May 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Augusta Chronicle, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

SMYRNA, GA. - On an ordinary Friday morning in the Atlanta area, Spanish- language radio stations are busy detailing the hot musical acts and weekend drink specials at the region's Hispanic-friendly bars.

In La Que Buena studio, Marilyn Velez was at the microphone, and the conversation took a much more serious direction. Ms. Velez is a workplace safety specialist for the federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

As often as she can, Ms. Velez makes the rounds to the Spanish stations, trying to make sure that workers are aware they have a right to a danger-free job - regardless of their immigration status.

Despite her efforts, she concedes that many Hispanics are wary of calling OSHA for help, even if they are certain their lives are at risk while at work.

"They think it costs money to call OSHA, like joining a union," said Ms. Velez. "And they think we'll turn them in to immigration services. But we don't do that. We make sure everyone in America has a safe work environment, regardless of their status."

While there are so-called compliance assistant specialists like Ms. Velez in every state, the 30-year-old Puerto Rico native is one of the few who speaks Spanish fluently.

In a state where the Hispanic population tripled from 108,922 in 1990 to 435,227 in 2000, Ms. Velez's ability to bridge the language gap is vital in preventing workplace deaths and injuries among Georgia immigrants, her co-workers say.

"She goes out and provides these services for free to businesses and their employees," said Benjamin Ross, the assistant regional administrator for the OSHA office that oversees most states in the Southeast. "She is there to provide assistance. She is not part of the enforcement arena."

Ms. Velez, who has worked for OSHA since 1997, says she is optimistic her "safety-rights" message is getting through to Hispanic communities throughout Georgia.

As she talks to La Que Buena listeners about OSHA's willingness to investigate dangerous workplace conditions, the radio producer's phone lights up with callers wanting to ask questions.

One caller wants to know if the slippery bridge he works on is a violation of safety standards. Another wants to know how to file a complaint with OSHA. From housewives to construction workers, the Spanish-speaking audience has no shortage of questions about what is and what is not against the law.

"A lot of the calls we get are because people don't get paid for their work, or they are injured and we can't track down the contractor," Ms. Velez said. "Sometimes, (Hispanic workers) live so isolated, they don't know what to do if they get hurt."

Roberto Sanchez, a former Mexican schoolteacher who is now an Atlanta day laborer, says he is often discouraged by the workplace conditions in his new country.

"It's not easy to work here in the United States," he said, noting that he has been tricked by contractors who refused to pay him for his work.

Mr. Sanchez said he appreciates the support offered by Ms. Velez and OSHA because it helps many workers avoid the troubles he experienced.

Although there are no figures to detail how often Hispanics are injured on the job, an in-house OSHA report shows that workplace fatalities among Georgia Hispanics dropped from 19 deaths in fiscal year 2001 to 6 deaths in fiscal year 2002.

OSHA also recently began a concerted effort to record how often language plays a role in the workplace deaths of immigrants.

Ms. Velez said she hopes the death numbers will continue to decline.

However, she says that despite OSHA's work to educate as many people as possible, she still isn't seeing a significant increase in safety training by employers.

Oddly enough, Hispanic-owned businesses are where problems are the worst, she said.

"Attitudes are weak with regard to training and permits," Ms. Velez said.

"They often say `I've been doing it for some time. I don't need training.' But one citation from OSHA could be $30,000 and that can put you out of business really quick, I tell them."

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