Dangerous Work Conditions For Migrant Women in Maryland Crab Industry, Report Says

by Ben Somberg

July 14, 2010

A report released in Washington this morning highlights "The Hidden Struggles of Migrant Worker Women In The Maryland Crab Industry." The paper, by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. and the International Human Right Law Clinic at American University Washington College of Law, is focused mostly on immigration policy issues (a little outside our purview), but I wanted to note the section on worker safety.

The report looks at the hundreds of Mexican women who travel every year to the Eastern Shore of Maryland on H-2B guestworker visas to work in the crab industry. The researchers interviewed more than 40 current or former workers, and found that:

Work-related injuries are common for many of the migrant workers in the Maryland crab industry. Use of sharp knives, contact with chemicals, lack of formal training, and the pace of work all contribute to injuries. ... In fact, cuts, scrapes, and rashes on the hands and arms of workers were so routine that many interviewed workers did not view them as actual injuries. When the authors asked, “Have you experienced any injuries at work?” many workers responded “No.” When asked specifically about cuts, the women universally responded affirmatively. ... Many of the injuries sustained by these workers could, and should have been prevented by following laws related to occupational safety and health.

Addressing workplace safety hazards is often a struggle; immigrant or guest worker employees can face extra challenges. This made me think back to a study last year by Nebraska Appleseed surveying meatpacking workers in the state, which found:

crippling line speed, supervisory abuse, persistently high injury rates, and not being allowed to go to the bathroom. Sixty-two percent of workers said they had been injured in the previous year, far higher than the officially reported rate.

Across the county, we have a long way to go to address these problems. The crab houses and meatpacking plants have an obligation to provide their employees with a safe and healthy work environment. One obvious improvement, from the safety and health perspective, would be to reduce line and production speeds. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that the employers’ obligation to set safe and manageable production speeds is embodied in the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. An enterprising OSHA inspector—backed by a good attorney from the Solicitor of Labor’s office—could make the case that high production speeds present a recognized hazard that is likely to cause serious injury, and that a feasible means of abating the hazard would be to reduce the speeds.

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