In 2002, the Hayward Building Systems roof and floor truss facility in Santa Maria, Calif.–the year-old, 50,000-square-foot, solar-powered jewel of Hayward Lumber–reported 28 work-related safety incidents in a 12-month period. The next year, the number shot up to 35 cases. "It was out of control," recalls Lynn Edie, operations manager and now one of two safety coordinators at the plant.

The situation did not go unnoticed. From the company's home office in Monterey, Calif., to each of the dealer's half-dozen locations along the Central Coast, the call went out to make safety a priority. Within a year, Hayward Lumber enacted a comprehensive safety program, including financial incentives–and accountability–for workers and managers.

By 2004, the number of injuries at the truss plant had fallen to five, and there were just two incidents in each of the last two years. Corporate-wide, the incident ratio (the average number of accidents per 100 workers per year) is less than half what it was three years ago, and is well below the national average for LBM operations. "It's been a huge cultural change," says Edie.

Hayward's improved safety record and ongoing commitment is even more remarkable when you consider that about three-quarters of the 50 truss-facility employees, and an even higher percentage of the line workers at the plant, are of Hispanic descent. Most understand but don't speak English, says Edie; some can't read in either language.

It's a dual challenge that an increasing number of dealers face. Unsafe workplaces affect employee morale, insurance rates, and productivity. And, as the nation's Hispanic population continues to increase and spread to markets nationwide (the latest Census figures indicate nearly one in three of the nation's 300-plus million residents are of that general ethnicity), lumberyards and related manufacturing facilities are increasingly hiring people who don't speak English at home.

While much attention has been paid to the fact that nearly 3 million Hispanics work in construction–25.1% of that workforce–it's also notable that Hispanics hold 12.5% of the jobs at wholesalers of lumber and other construction materials and 11.2% of the jobs at retail building material and supplies dealers, according to the 2006 Population Survey conducted by the Census Bureau for the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). "The industry has expanded, and with it, the number of Hispanic workers," says Dale Mask, vice president of Alliance Training & Consulting, a business training firm in Overland Park, Kan. "Many coming into the industry don't have much experience or skill, so training, especially regarding safety, is critical."

Hispanic workers incur significantly more safety-related workplace injuries and fatalities than any other ethnic group working in construction and the supply chain. Both structural framing work and truss manufacturing are already risky fields, recording twice the incident ratios of general construction and manufacturing, respectively. But Hispanics working in those jobs experience injuries and fatalities even more often–and increasingly so. For instance, as Hispanic employment in construction rose 12% in 2004, the latest BLS figures available, the number of work-related fatalities among them jumped 20% that year, and even more so among foreign-born Hispanic workers.

Neither the BLS nor OSHA cross-tabs incidents among Hispanics or any other ethnicity in lumberyards, truss plants, or millwork operations. But given the somewhat similar working conditions to construction–there's materials handling and the use of saws and other power tools, for example–it's logical that a like proportion of injuries and fatalities in those workplaces also occurs. Dealers with installed sales operations, whether using subs or in-house crews, also should heed the numbers. "It's easy to see how soft-tissue injuries would occur in a [truss] facility or in a lumberyard," Edie says, recalling the most common type of injury in those workplace environments and on jobsites.

The numbers beg the question of why a higher percentage of Hispanic workers are prone to injuries and fatalities. Language barriers are an obvious reason. In addition, at least anecdotally, Hispanic workers are believed to be less apt to report an injury because they fear getting fired or drawing attention to their immigration status, even if they are documented. And, historically, Hispanics are a more transient workforce than other ethnic groups, often leading employers to shirk an investment in proper training.

"The influx of new workers into the industry, with a general lack of language or work skills, puts [Hispanics] at risk," says Robert Matuga, director of Labor, Safety, and Health Services at the NAHB.

Mask says the language barrier is not only the biggest hurdle to workplace safety among Hispanics, but also is the root cause of the other reasons. "If a manager can't communicate easily with an employee, and doesn't take the time to improve that, the worker is often left behind," he says. The result often is a poor work ethic and attitude, high turnover rate, and reduced productivity and concern for safety.

Safety Solutions

Dealers and contractors at the forefront of the issues, primarily those in markets with high Hispanic general and workforce populations, have developed both common-sense and creative solutions to combat the issue of communicating safety to non?English-speaking employees.

Hayward's program runs the gamut from bilingual safety materials and training sessions (live and video) to Pilates-based strength training at the start of each monthly safety meeting at every location. A printed, bilingual pamphlet features company president and CEO Bill Hayward demonstrating the poses, encouraging employees to exercise on a daily basis while also exhibiting the dealer's commitment to safety from the top.

But the key to the dealer's success with regard to safety, says Hayward's director of human resources, Marie Scherff, is accountability. "We reward good safety, and if there's an issue, we deal with it," she says. Rewards include a $50 bill to every employee with a no-incident month and a monthly safety award at each location valued at about $500 available to no-incident workers. Consequences (aside from any injury suffered) include a three-strikes rule and loss of financial incentives for that month.

The company also corrals its managers and safety coordinators for quarterly best practice sessions, including safety issues, and brings in speakers regarding worker's compensation and the importance of safety. "We've put more emphasis on safety and set aggressive goals," says Edie. "We also sharpened our hiring practices to find employees that would work safely and follow the rules," including complete background checks, drug testing, and a physical. These practices also help weed out undocumented workers.

Finally, the dealer offers health insurance benefits to all workers and encourages employees to report incidents, whether they need formal medical attention or not. "There's no real reason for them to fear reporting an injury," says Edie. "In fact, given the low deductible, they often can't afford not to."

Mask is all for financial incentives that encourage safety, so long as it is corporate-wide, properly communicated, and means something to employees. "The payoff has to be what's special and important to the workers," he says, which often is not necessarily a high-ticket item.

By the Book

Of all the methods and materials available to communicate safe work practices among Hispanic employees, the most prominent are bilingual documents and manuals. For its builder and contractor contingency, NAHB's publishing division now offers 10 bilingual titles on such topics as fall protection, scaffold safety, and common phrases. Two of the titles are videos to accommodate literacy issues.

Though focused on jobsite safety issues for builders and contractors, NAHB's materials also are appropriate for dealers and their operations, given somewhat similar workplace safety issues in a yard or manufacturing plant, and especially if a dealer offers installed sales. The books are laid out with English and Spanish content on facing pages, making them easy to use.

The publisher markets the titles through various industry media, direct to the nation's largest home builders, and through the association's state and local chapters; it recently struck a deal with Lowe's Home Improvement to offer a jobsite safety handbook as a giveaway to valued customers–a scenario that might be appropriate for pro sales operations as well. "We've received an overwhelming response because of the residential focus of these materials, how we present the information, and the use of photographs" to demonstrate safe practices, says Matuga. To address literacy issues, he plans to produce more companion videos, which will tell the same story as the books, if in less detail.

To mitigate Mask's "left behind" workplace dynamic among non?English-speaking employees, Alliance Training & Consulting developed "Conversational Spanish for English-Speaking Managers," a training program to boost a supervisor's comfort level with that language. "It's not designed to make a manager fluent, but more so to understand that they can communicate effectively if they take the time," says Mask of the three-day session.

Alliance's approach to any workplace issue–safety or otherwise–is a lesson for all dealers to consider. "The first thing we do is gather the managers and identify the biggest challenge," says Mask. "The course develops from there."

In that vein, Matuga chose fall protection and scaffold safety as NAHB's first two workplace-specific safety titles, given that they combine for nearly one-half of jobsite injuries. Similarly, at Alexander Lumber, a $164 million, 41-location dealer based in Aurora, Ill., human resources director Rick Curry found off-the-shelf safety videos regarding back and forklift safety to better communicate with a relatively small minority of Hispanic employees, primarily in the company's truss plant in nearby Cortland, Ill. "Very few of them aren't bilingual, so it's not a big issue," says Curry. "But we have seen the number of incidents decline" since making the videos and other bilingual safety materials part of the dealer's overall safety program.

Dealers and their manufacturing operations managers also can take lessons from other industries to effectively communicate safety to non?English-speaking workers. Rinker Materials Corp.'s Hydro Conduit (concrete pipe) manufacturing facility in Frederick, Md., for instance, switched from interpreters to more visual means of communicating its safety policies and practices to Spanish-speaking workers. The plant's safety coordinator staged and photographed both safe and unsafe practices throughout the facility, then created PowerPoint presentations for weekly safety meetings with all employees; the photos were labeled in both English and Spanish to help communicate them as safe or unsafe, and interpreters remain on-hand to translate questions and answers.

Meanwhile, for the massive expansion of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, the general contractor mandated a 40-hour safety training program presented in both English and Spanish. Both classes included a half-day of learning basic terms in the other language, and key terms were dropped onto a pocket card for handy reference.

Regardless of the methods or materials, an effective safety program–especially for the growing number of non?English-speaking or bilingual Hispanic workers in the LBM industry–relies on effective communication. "If you aren't communicating your safety program at all levels, to all employees, the opportunities to be safe will suffer," says Mask. "And that will impact everything that flows to the bottom line."

–Rich Binsacca is a contributing editor for ProSales.