Skip to:

    • Three people working on the recycling line of waste management plant.

Reducing Hazards, Restoring Dignity

Share: 

Through education, research and policy advocacy, the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program, led by the Fielding School’s Linda Delp, is a powerful ally for the mostly immigrant low-wage workforce of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles generates more than 10 million tons of trash each year, much of which makes its way to waste-recycling facilities where workers – many of them Latino immigrants, many without legal documents – sort and separate recyclable items from non-recyclable waste. Laboring at long conveyor belts, they work at a pace that puts them at high risk for repetitive-motion injuries. If not properly protected, they can be exposed to hazardous materials – from dead animals to used syringes.

Karla Campos was one such worker. The unacceptable conditions she saw at her facility led Campos to speak out, ultimately at the expense of her job. Her experience illustrates the vulnerability of Los Angeles’ low-wage immigrant workers to job-related health and safety hazards – and the critical role played by the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (UCLA-LOSH) in promoting their health.

A group of images showing advocacy work and carwash workers.


Campos, brought to the United States from Mexico by her mother when she was 8, hadn’t been working at her recycling job long when she became outraged by the conditions. “Coworkers were getting hurt because they didn’t have the right equipment,” she says. “One lady got pricked by a dirty needle and the company just gave her hand sanitizer and told her she was going to be OK. She never complained because she said she needed to support her kids and couldn’t lose her job. The company takes advantage because they know these are undocumented workers.”

Campos and several of her coworkers refused to remain silent. They contacted the local Teamsters union, which brought in UCLA-LOSH, part of the Fielding School’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, to educate a group of the facility’s workers on the potential hazards and their rights. After failing to get an appropriate response from their supervisors, eight workers decided to file a formal complaint with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). UCLA-LOSH collaborated with a community partner to guide workers through the process, consulting on how to document the hazards and engage with inspectors at the site.

“Our role in public health should be not just to get rid of hazards, but also to promote worker health and safety in ways that enhance the dignity, pride and satisfaction people get from their jobs.”
— Linda Delp (MPH ’84, PhD ’06)

In the end, Cal/OSHA issued citations to three employers – the waste hauler, recycling facility operator and temporary staffing agency – for violating standards designed to protect workers from unguarded machines, unsanitary conditions, confined space and heat hazards, among others. During the inspection, Campos was one of the workers who called attention to the problem areas. She was fired by the company but continued to be engaged in the process. Today Campos is an organizer with the Teamsters, fighting for change in the industry.

Approximately 84 percent of the low-wage workforce in Los Angeles is foreign-born (nearly three-fourths are Latino), and 56 percent are without their legal documents. Many work multiple jobs – in restaurants and warehouses, construction and manufacturing; as janitors, maids and housekeepers; and in agriculture, to name a few. Often, these jobs are rife with health and safety hazards. An analysis by UCLA-LOSH has found that undocumented workers who experience serious on-the-job injuries are significantly more likely to encounter negative or illegal reactions from employers, such as being forced to work despite injury, being fired shortly after injury, or receiving threats of deportation.

A photo of Linda Delp at an automated car wash.
Linda Delp

Shifting power dynamics have made many low-wage workers less willing to speak out about safety concerns, according to Dr. Linda Delp (MPH ’84, PhD ’06), director of UCLA-LOSH and adjunct associate professor of community health sciences in the Fielding School. Delp points to the decline of unions; the erosion of employer/employee relations as companies increasingly hire through temporary staffing agencies; and the growing economic pressures to accept hazardous conditions in an uncertain job market as examples of the forces operating against workers exercising their rights.

Immigrants – particularly those lacking legal documents – are especially vulnerable for several reasons. Because their options are limited, they are more likely to hold high-risk, high-stress jobs. Language barriers may prevent effective communication with supervisors or safety inspectors. And many fear retaliation if they raise safety concerns or report injuries. “In a number of industries, undocumented workers’ legal status is not an issue until they speak up or try to organize,” says Delp.

A group of images showing advocacy work and carwash workers.


Since 1978, UCLA-LOSH has served as an indispensable ally for these workers through education, research and policy advocacy. These efforts involve partnering with worker centers, labor unions, community health centers and others to empower workers by informing them of their rights and to build capacity to support workers in seeking recourse. UCLA-LOSH has engaged car wash and other outdoor workers to better understand how to prevent heat illness, including their rights to shade, breaks, and access to sufficient drinkable water. An initiative supporting warehouse workers in becoming more active in the health and safety inspection process has led to groundbreaking citations against both a Los Angeles-based warehouse operator and a temporary staffing agency, sending a message that temp agencies can’t be used to circumvent compliance with workplace health and safety requirements. Through the Occupational Health Internship Program, UCLA-LOSH builds the capacity of partner organizations, providing interns – including students from the Fielding School – who gain valuable real-world experience about how work affects health.

Once, there was a widely held stereotype of immigrant workers as afraid to organize or otherwise exercise their rights. While many do shy away from speaking up out of legitimate fears, Delp points to a number of recent examples locally in which immigrant workers have proved quite willing to fight for better conditions.

A woman standing and smiling in front of a carwash facility.
Rosemarie Molina

UCLA-LOSH has worked closely with the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) Carwash Campaign, which was established in 2008 to support the efforts of car wash workers in Los Angeles to organize for better conditions. Rosemarie Molina, a 2009 UCLA graduate who serves as the campaign’s strategic coordinator, notes that the approximately 10,000 car wash workers in Los Angeles are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the majority of them undocumented. “They are part of the underground economy, and very exploited,” Molina says. Workers commonly earn tips only, making as little as $35 for a 10- or 12-hour day, she notes. Many are not afforded rest or meal breaks, and are not provided drinking water or proper equipment to protect themselves from toxic chemicals.

The campaign brought in UCLA-LOSH, which has offered a combination of technical expertise about hazards and “train the trainer” heat-illness prevention program and leadership development courses, preparing campaign and worker leaders to educate employees on their rights. Approximately 1,000 workers have been reached, leading many of them to begin monitoring their worksites – assisted by UCLA-LOSH interns – to assess compliance with Cal/OSHA requirements that they be provided “agua, sombra y descanso” (water, shade and rest), as well as to document any violations. As a result of the campaign’s overall efforts, workers at 16 car washes in Los Angeles have voted for union representation with the United Steelworkers, their collectively bargained agreements addressing many of the health and safety concerns.

“Most people think about worker exploitation in terms of wages and hours, but LOSH helps people understand that work and health are related.”
— Rosemarie Molina, strategic coordinator, CLEAN Carwash Campaign

“UCLA-LOSH provides an incredible service to very small organizations like ours by enabling us to do so much more,” says Molina. “Most people think about worker exploitation in terms of wages and hours, but LOSH helps people understand that work and health are related.” The CLEAN campaign also highlights the value of the UCLA-LOSH internship program. Paul Camarena, a Fielding School student in Delp’s class who became one of two interns assigned to the campaign, helped to create a health and safety curriculum that became an integral part of the program to train the car wash workers. “The nature and severity of the exploitation that this community of workers faces is a reality I won’t soon forget,” Camarena says. “I share a culture and language with many of the car wash workers, and it felt good to show them that there are people who care enough to fight alongside them.”

The costs of work-related injuries and illnesses are enormous – to workers, their families and the nation. At an estimated $250 billion in medical and indirect costs (including loss of productivity), it’s an economic toll that rivals that of cancer, Delp notes. Then there is the human toll, particularly for low-wage immigrant workers struggling to build a better life in their new environment. “The stress in your job and in your overall life is hard to appreciate for those of us who haven’t experienced it – especially for workers who don’t have their legal documents,” Delp says. “They’re living in constant fear of losing their job or being deported, compounded by the hazards of fast-paced work, in many cases holding two jobs, and juggling life issues on top of all that.”

But in nearly a decade of interacting with a wide spectrum of low-wage immigrant workers as UCLA-LOSH director, Delp has learned that even in some of the worst conditions, people take pride in their work.

“Workers can do amazing things when there is an environment of camaraderie and an avenue to be heard – and when they know that people respect the contribution they’re making to society, and they are provided the kind of protections they need,” Delp says. “Our role in public health should be not just to get rid of hazards, but also to promote worker health and safety in ways that enhance the dignity, pride and satisfaction people get from their jobs.”