Tom Rodriguez and La Vonna John have several things in common. They're safety pros who have achieved impressive results in workplaces with large non-English speaking populations. Employee turnover and education levels also present challenges.

So how has Rodriguez, safety coordinator for Continental Cabinets Manufacturing, Inc., with three plants in El Paso, Lancaster, and South Dallas, Tex., been able to cut the accident rate in half, trimming OSHA recordables from 36 in 1994 to 18 last year?

And how has John, safety and health coordinator for J.R. Simplot, a frozen potato products processor with more than 700 employees in Hermiston, Ore., brought lost workdays down from 500 when she started 12 years ago to 1 in 1995?

About 98 percent of Continental Cabinets' 100 or so workers are Hispanic. Approximately half of Simplot's workers are Hispanic, with another four percent either Vietnamese or Cambodian.

As is often the case in safety, these success stories can be traced back to the "can do" attitudes and committed work of the two safety coordinators. And the support they get from company management.

Rodriguez and John are modest about their efforts, saying their programs are just like any other: ·

  • Management plays an active role in safety -the owner of Continental Cabinets signs all safety policies; Simplot managers are on the central safety committee and partake in safety tours. ·
  • Safety has been built into the business -at Simplot, safety performance is tracked on a matrix and valued just like production and costs; at Continental Cabinets all employees and supervisors are graded on safety during their evaluations. ·
  • And safety is talked up all the time. There's an open-door policy at Continental, where employees are encouraged to bring any safety problem to Rodriguez. At Simplot, a larger operation with a more structured program, employees conduct inspections, make recommendations, investigate accidents, and participate in safety meetings held by each shift at least once a month.

But how do you communicate with that language barrier? The two safety coordinators share the same attitude: they see the dialect obstacle as another challenge to their jobs, but one easily remedied.

It's easily remedied because Rodriguez and John put a lot of time and effort into it. Rodriguez speaks fluent Spanish, and he says one-on-one coaching, particularly with new hires, has much to do with Continental's safety success. John says finding solutions to workers' complaints has given her credibility over the years. She's now taking a Spanish class.

Discipline is another way to get the safety message across. Both John and Rodriguez are firm believers in laying down the rules. Rodriguez has dismissed two workers in the past three years for not working safely. His philosophy: Coach workers, give them a chance, and take action if they don't comply. Simplot evaluates managers and hourly workers on safety performance, and has a discipline policy for unsafe acts.

Actions do speak louder than words when it comes to safety, and Rodriguez's coaching and John's problem-solving need no translation to show workers that someone is interested in their well-being. Also, the actions of these safety coordinators are backed up by their companies. Both firms have supervisors and personnel managers who are fluent in Spanish. Signs are hung first in English, then translated into Spanish. Simplot and Continental offer free English classes to employees through local community colleges.

There are other local resources to help overcome any language problems. Continental's plant locations in South Dallas, El Paso, and Lancaster all have large Hispanic populations, as does Hermiston, Ore. Most local businesses and hospitals have Spanish-speaking employees on hand to interpret if needed. If the Asian workers at Simplot ever have a communication problem, John is ready to hook them up to a telephone interpreter service.

Both companies have benefited from their efforts to bridge the cultural gap. Continental Cabinets participates in an inspection exemption program operated by the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission. Simplot has seen its insurance premiums discounted by 50 percent, and won an award from consultants Johnson & Higgins for one-million hours worked without a lost-time accident.