Originally posted Jan. 11, 2012
On a clear but cool November morning commuters make their way around a recently built highway in Ciudad Juarez that bypasses the congested city roadways. The drive to an industrial area where Ethicon Inc. houses its 102,000-square-foot manufacturing facility was rather uneventful. That hasn't always been the case for drivers in this Mexican border city across from El Paso, Texas.
In recent years, drug cartels have terrorized Juarez, accounting for more than 9,000 deaths in the city since 2008.
The manufacturing plants along the Mexican side of the border, known as maquiladoras, haven't been directly affected by the violence. But employees who live in the city have been impacted by the outbreak -- through deaths of friends or family members or threats to their own lives.
"They'll have people calling, and they'll say we know where you live, and we're going to do this to you," says Ethicon plant manager John Schneider.
Ethicon, a business unit of Johnson & Johnson, responded to the situation with new safety measures and training programs designed to raise employee awareness. The company even incorporated lean manufacturing principles into some of its safety plans. For instance, Ethicon standardized transportation procedures for drivers who shuttle workers back and forth from the plant, says Raul Calderon, business unit manager. About 80% of the plant's employees utilize the company's transportation services.
Standard procedures, such as identifiable name badges and first aid kits on the buses, help employees recognize potential issues. Just like in lean manufacturing, if workers notice something has changed in the process, they stop what they're doing. The company also minimized the amount of time workers can wait at a bus stop. If the bus hasn't shown after 15 minutes, the employee is allowed to go home with no penalty, Schneider says.
Image courtesy Stratfor Global Intelligence
Ethicon brought in safety professionals who spoke with workers about how to avoid potentially dangerous situations through heightened awareness. This includes staying away from known hotspots and keeping a low profile, Schneider says. The company reinforced the messages with videos and displays throughout the plant.
When workers are threatened or traumatized by violence, the plant provides support services. In some cases, Ethicon has provided workers with security agents who have taken the employees to a hotel or safe spot until a threat has passed, Schneider says. The plant also provides counseling services for employees who were affected by violence.
The plant implemented some structural changes, as well, to improve safety. Ethicon installed opaque walls at the plant's main gate to prevent visibility into the facility.
The level of violence in Juarez has tapered off, and life is slowly returning some level of normalcy. Through Dec. 23, homicides declined 38% in 2011, according to a report in the El Paso Times. Earlier in the year, the city hosted an event called Jurez Competitiva that included high-profile speakers such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.
The event was designed to showcase the positive aspects of the city. Ethicon's parent company Johnson & Johnson and other major employers in the area participated in the event. As part of the feel-good spirit engendered by the event, Ethicon offered to pay for six different surgeries for people in the city. One of the recipients was Juarez Competitiva volunteer Uriel Ivarra.
Ivarra was battling obesity and the company identified him as a candidate for laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery. Just two weeks after receiving the surgery, Ivarra said he already lost 35 pounds and his diabetes was under control. The results of the surgery have provided Ivarra with confidence boost that will help him finish school, find a good job and complete his future goals, he says.
Ivarra described his work with Juarez Competitiva as an opportunity to provide "a new face for Juarez."
Indeed, the city seems to be on the road to recovery. But life for many Juarez residents may never be the same. Edgar Vazquez, the plant's process excellence manager, says he no longer goes out to clubs or other downtown attractions in the evening.
"I was born and raised in Juarez," Vazquez says. "I love this city. However, you know the places you need to go and the places you don't need to go."
While the violence has changed lifestyles for many Juarez residents, 31-year-old Vazquez says it's not necessarily for the worse.
"In the end, those are not the basic things you need to live," Vazquez says.
The situation in Juarez has helped place more emphasis on spending time with friends and family, Vazquez says. House parties have replaced many of the nights out on the town.
"People are closer to their values and their families," says Vera Ortiz, Ethicon's lean coordinator. "People used to work for cars and more materialistic things. Now family is much more important."