‘The void is big’: Latinos overrepresented among Georgia worker deaths

In recent years, Hispanic fatalities in Georgia workplaces include three minors.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Oscar Junior Lorenso Ortiz was just 11 when he first joined his parents, both farmworkers from Mexico, out in the fields. Under the scorching summer sun, the family picked peppers and squash — a small part of South Georgia’s vast agricultural bounty.

It became a yearly tradition for Oscar to work during summer vacations. He wanted to come out to the farm on days off during the school year, but his parents nixed the idea, to make sure he was well-rested for class. The Moultrie-based family planned to use Oscar’s wages to one day help pay for his college education.

Oscar’s mother, Juana, was impressed by Oscar’s work ethic on the farm, despite the tough conditions. But she says her firstborn had long ago made her the “proudest mamá in the world.” From a young age, Oscar translated for her, shoring up the family’s connection to the outside world. He did well in school, where he played the trombone in band. He babysat for his younger sister.

In July 2020, just one month after turning 15, Oscar was driving a forklift on the farm when it tipped over and crushed him under its weight. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration found no violations had occurred, but his death continues to be a source of deep anguish for his family. It’s also indicative of a broader trend, as Latinos account for a disproportionate number of workplace fatalities in Georgia.

In fiscal years 2019 through 2022, there were a total of 188 identified victims of workplace deaths in the state, according to data from federal workplace safety agencies and the Georgia death certificate database. Of those 188 deaths, 55 — or roughly 30% — were Hispanic workers. In contrast, just 10.2% of the state’s total population, and 10.4% of its total workforce, is Hispanic.

That discrepancy illustrates the outsized role Hispanic workers play in the Georgia labor market and their participation in industries that are inherently more hazardous.

It also spotlights the vulnerabilities of immigrant populations, especially undocumented workers who may be reluctant to report dangerous workplaces or other labor violations. In Georgia, 36% of the immigrant population is unauthorized, higher than the national average, according to 2019 estimates from the Pew Research Center.

Credit: Lautaro Grinspan

“The absence, the void is big,” Oscar’s mother, Juana, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Spanish. “Your life just isn’t the same as it used to be, because part of you is gone. It’s very difficult.”

Oscar Junior Lorenso Ortiz, back and center, poses with his mother, younger sister and a family friend.

Credit: Courtesy of the Ortiz family

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Credit: Courtesy of the Ortiz family

‘A perfect storm’

Latino workers’ greater risk of dying on the job is a national phenomenon. Out of all racial and ethnic groups, Latinos were found to have had the highest rate of fatal injuries at work, according a report released last December by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).Nationwide, immigrant workers faced higher risks than those born in the U.S.

But labor conditions may be particularly hazardous to workers in Georgia and the South. That’s according to Michelle Lapointe, the Atlanta-based deputy legal director of the National Immigration Law Center, and a litigator who has represented scores of immigrant workers in the region.

Pointing to more repressive patterns of immigration enforcement in the region, Lapointe said, “I think that in Georgia and the South in particular, it’s sort of a perfect storm, in the sense that you have a high concentration of dangerous workplaces, like poultry processing plants, for example. And you also have weak or nonexistent labor protections, and low union representation,” said Lapointe. “So, when you combine all those things, you get a situation that is more likely to lead to labor violations, including more hazardous workplaces and, sadly, worker deaths.”

Among the 188 identified victims of workplace fatalities in Georgia from 2019 to 2022, four were minors, like Oscar. Of these, two others were Hispanic.

In 2019, Luis Rey Diaz Lopez, a 15-year-old employee of a mowing company, was cutting brush with a trimmer along a river in southwest Georgia. He stepped in an underwater hole and drowned, according to OSHA. Last May, Oscar Nambo Dominguez, 16, was performing site grading and rock removal for a construction project in Lithonia. He died when he fell from the earthmover he was operating, which ran over and crushed him. Nambo Dominguez’s death was mentioned in a recent New York Times investigation chronicling the growth and exploitation of Latin American migrant child labor. In that case, OSHA found four “serious” violations and issued the employer a $45,000 fine.

Fear of retaliation

Among the Georgia industries that have grown most reliant on Latino labor is Gainesville’s dominant poultry sector. In that city, roughly 40% of the total population is now Hispanic and 65% of the immigrant population lacks legal status – the highest proportion out of all U.S. metro areas, according to the Pew Research Center.

When a January 2021 nitrogen leak claimed six employees’ lives in an area poultry plant, five of the victims were identified as Hispanic.

On the day of the tragedy, when first respondents and medical personnel came on the scene to offer medical check-ups to survivors, many workers fled, local community advocates told the AJC. They were afraid of being noticed by authorities and potentially face deportation.

That fear is a key factor locking workers in hazardous situations, according to Lapointe, as it makes them reluctant to report issues they may spot at work that could lead to injury. She explained that enforcement actions by federal labor agencies against employers typically rely on worker complaints to get started.

For many immigrant workers “This is not an abstract fear,” Lapointe said. “There are well-documented instances of employers retaliating against workers who spoke up about labor conditions, by contacting ICE.”

“When you don’t have workers making complaints and you don’t have an employer having a reason to improve the working conditions at their worksite, you’re going to have more accidents, more fatalities.”

To encourage immigrant workers who experience or witness labor abuses to come forward, the Biden administration laid out a streamlined process for them to request protection from deportation, a move Lapointe described as a step in the right direction.

Since Olympics, Latinos loom large in construction

On a rainy day last December, Edwin Borrayo Pio, a Guatemalan immigrant and construction worker, came to work to fix a leak in the basement of a Smyrna duplex. The 43-year-old was trapped when the foundation and a wall of the home collapsed. By the time rescuers arrived on the scene, Borrayo Pio was dead.

For Latino workers in Georgia, there’s no occupation more hazardous than construction and roofing jobs. Together, they accounted for over 40% of Hispanic workplace fatalities in the state from 2019 to 2022.

Construction laborers from Latin America first arrived in metro Atlanta and Georgia in notable numbers in the 1990s, when a booming local economy – and a desperate need for construction workers in advance of the Olympics – beckoned.

That’s a story that Rafael Villegas, executive director of the Georgia Hispanic Construction Association, knows well. He says that today, in the midst of a worsening labor shortage in the state’s construction sector, the Hispanic population accounts for the majority of new entrants to the industry.

Echoing Lapointe, Villegas said an important part of his association’s outreach around safety is to “get rid of some of the myths, you know, like OSHA is the police and they’re going to hurt you. No. It’s the contrary. Every program and every opportunity we get, we try to tell them that OSHA is on our side.”

He said access to safety training materials in Spanish can be hard to come by and that’s a gap his organization is trying to bridge, especially for smaller and medium sized firms.

“At the end of the day, we want every worker, every person in construction, to go back and have dinner with their family every single night,” Villegas said.

Farm death upends a family

Juana, Oscar’s mother, has worked in agriculture in the Moultrie area ever since she moved to Georgia from Mexico in 2004.

On the day he died, Oscar was moving a forklift from one set of drying barns for tobacco leaves to another within the same farm. According to OSHA, he drove the forklift down a concrete ramp onto a dirt and gravel pathway and attempted to turn, causing the machine to tilt off-balance. Oscar fell off and the forklift landed on top of him.

Juana saw the forklift go down but hardly remembers anything else from that day. She says that’s likely due to trauma.


Credit: Courtesy of the Ortiz family

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Credit: Courtesy of the Ortiz family

Georgia is one of just 17 states without regulations to limit the type of work children can do on a farm. But federal child labor laws prohibiting specific, hazardous tasks in agriculture do apply. Those include operating a forklift.

Juana says Oscar wasn’t directed by a boss to drive the machine. She says he liked to have a go at doing things he saw his dad do. She says she isn’t mad at the farm’s management, but grateful for the opportunity to work. She noted that she herself also started to work as a young teen in Mexico, to help out her parents.

OSHA closed its inspection into Oscar’s accident on Feb. 3, 2021. It issued no citations.

Juana’s focus is on continuing to work in the fields to provide for her daughter, 13, whom she says has been her source of strength.

“I still find her crying sometimes. She tells me, ‘Mamá, I wish Oscar were still here. I feel alone.’”

“Take into account that, even for me as an adult, I can’t get over [Oscar’s death]. I suppose for her it’s even more difficult.”

How we got this story

To examine fatal workplace accidents, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution compiled information from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, as well as from news reports. Identifying the workers who were killed was a particular challenge. During the Trump Administration, OSHA stopped listing victims’ names and ages and some other details about their deaths. The AJC was able to identify most of the workers by matching details from the federal data and news reports to information in the state’s death certificate database. The newspaper also used death certificate data to find the race and ethnicity of the victims, as identified by medical examiners. When ethnicity data wasn’t available, we inferred workers’ Hispanic identities based on their names.