By DAVID WILLIAMSON UNC-CH News Services
CHAPEL HILL -- Black workers in North Carolina still are 50 percent more likely than white workers to die from injuries suffered on the job, according to a new study.
The study, conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, suggests that part of the reason is that blacks on average are less successful in securing jobs requiring education and training, which means they have to accept more dangerous work to earn a living.
After eliminating that effect of employment patterns, however, blacks still are more likely to be fatally injured when working in the same types of jobs as whites, researchers found. Direct personal discrimination at the worksite is a possible explanation for the excess risk.
A report on the research appears in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health, which was released Thursday afternoon (Feb. 5). Authors are Drs. Dana Loomis and David Richardson, associate professor and research associate, respectively, in epidemiology at UNC-CH.
"It has been known for a long time that minority workers have higher rates of fatal injuries at work," Loomis said. "What wasn't known for certain was the cause of it."
In public health literature, the two chief explanations for blacks' greater death rate were that they were less prepared to compete in job markets and that explicit racism plagued the workplace. The UNC-CH researchers looked at evidence for both explanations.
"We found support for both to a degree and that black workers in North Carolina have a 50 percent higher job fatality rate," Loomis said. "African-Americans do tend to hold different kinds of jobs from whites. That accounts for part of the excess risk, but not all of it. Apparently, direct personal discrimination such that blacks are assigned more hazardous tasks at the worksite also plays a role."
The UNC-CH study involved analyzing N.C. death data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner from 1977 through 1991. Researchers found 2,039 deaths at work during the period that fit their definition for study. They also used employment data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
As expected, whites were found more often than blacks in safer managerial, administrative and sales jobs. Blacks were more likely to be employed in dangerous jobs including logging, farming, motor transportation and material moving.
After eliminating the effect of holding different kinds of jobs, black men still faced a 13 percent excess risk, Loomis said. Black women overall had slightly higher fatality rates than white women, but the numbers were too small to draw firm conclusions.
Results of comparable studies could be expected to be similar throughout much of the South because employment patterns elsewhere are similar to North Carolina's, he said. Outside the South, results would be comparable, but less so.
"During the first half of this century, dirty, dangerous jobs, collectively known as 'Negro work,' were openly reserved for black workers," the authors wrote. "African-Americans are still disadvantaged at work today. Relative to white Americans, they have more difficulty finding work, and, when employed, their jobs pay less and are of lower quality.
"As long as the existence of hazardous jobs is tolerated, the most economically and socially disadvantaged workers will continue to be at the greatest risk."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supported the research through grants to the UNC-CH Injury Prevention Research Center.
Note: Loomis and Richardson can be reached at (919) 966-7433 and 966-6305, respectively.
Contacts: David Williamson, Bret Johnson, 962-8596