Low-Wage Jobs Are Hazardous

Workers in low-wage jobs are more likely to be exposed to injuries, environmental exposures, and other occupational hazards.

Workers in low-wage jobs are at greater risk of being exposed to workplace hazards and occupational risks.

These jobs are often referred to as the three Ds: Dirty, Dangerous, and Difficult. Low-wage jobs are disproportionately held by Black and Latinx workers. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable to occupational risks because if they complain they could risk deportation. Some low-wage jobs expose workers to higher levels of chemicals, pollutants, and dangerous natural environments, which harm health. Black workers are more likely than White workers to hold jobs with occupational exposure to asbestos, silica, and workplace fumes resulting in a higher incidence of lung cancer among Black workers (Juon et al., 2021). Agriculture workers, most of whom are Latinx, and nearly half of whom are undocumented, are exposed to hazardous chemicals, including pesticides; air pollutants such as wildfire smoke, black carbon, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and diesel-related emissions; extreme heat from being outside all day; and biological threats such as endotoxins and mycotoxins (Castillo et al, 2021; Moyce, 2017).

Injuries and illness are common in low-wage jobs. Studies have found that low-wage jobs are associated with rates of injury or disease that are twice the national average (Steege et al., 2014). Within the service sector, workers in the hospitality industry, and housekeepers especially, experience the highest rate of injuries to muscles and bones due to cleaning tasks that require physical exertion, carrying loads, repetitive motions, and unnatural postures (i.e., crawling, stooping, crouching) (Buchanan et al., 2010). Latina housekeepers, in particular, experience higher rates of injury than other female housekeepers (Buchanan et al., 2010). According to one study, Latinx hotel workers expressed that employers did not prioritize employee health and would discriminate against Latinx workers by providing preferential treatment for White workers, thereby creating a culture that discouraged the reporting of safety risks (Romero et al., 2018). Another study of Latino workers in a meatpacking factory – work that produces injury through forceful exertion and repetitive motion – found that workers believed employers cared more about production than their health and safety (Ramos et al., 2020).

On average, about 5,000 preventable work-related deaths occur yearly (Boggess & Pompeii, 2020). The industries with the highest fatality rates are agriculture, forestry, and fishing; transportation and warehousing; and construction – industries with large proportions of Latinx and Black workers (“Number and rate of fatal work injuries,” n.d.). Among farmworkers, tractor overturns were the most common cause of death (Castillo et al., 2021). Heat-related mortality also occurs due to prolonged heat exposure, with undocumented Latino workers making up 20% of those who die (Castillo et al., 2021). After motor vehicle accidents (“Fatal occupational injuries by event,” n.d.), falls are the second leading cause of work-related fatalities. In 2019, the most commonly cited Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violation was protection from falls within the construction industry, indicating that employers are putting workers’ lives at risk (“Commonly Used Statistics,” n.d.). Latino construction workers experience the highest rate of falls out of any racial/ethnic group (Socias-Morales et al., 2018).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black workers who make up a large proportion of essential workers – those working in occupations such as transportation and material moving, health care support, food preparation, serving, and personal care and service – have been exposed to greater risks of injury, illness, and death compared to White workers who were more likely to work at home (Rogers et al., 2020).

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