Nov. 16 2012 04:20 PM

There’s this contractor . . . let’s call him ‘John Doe.’ He’s a 30-year industry veteran, and he should have known better. One day, out on a job, he realized that his mower wasn’t mowing at the right height. He had cabled down the throttle bar to keep the gas flowing. Then, instead of bending down to adjust the height, Doe put his hand under the deck to lift the mower up. And that’s when the still-moving mower blade cut off the tips of three of his fingers.

It’s a true story—although the name has been changed to protect the careless. It not only illustrates how important safety is, but that even experienced people need to be reminded about it.

No one wants to read gruesome headlines like: “Tree trimmer dies in power line electrocution,” or “Landscaper seriously injured in stump grinder accident.” Real headlines, real injuries.

No doubt about it, the type of work we do in the green industry carries with it some innate hazards. First, we have all the dangers inherent in working outdoors. Heat stress, cold stress, sunstroke, insect stings, dog bites, and snake bites. Add to that the potential injury from the equipment we use, as the above story shows. We can suffer back injuries, eye injuries and hearing loss. All of that, and we haven’t even mentioned the hazards involved in driving trucks.

Happily, most if not all on-the-job injuries can be prevented by having a well-thought-out safety program. What components go into such a program varies by company, by the resources it has available, but most of all, by its attitude toward safety.

The companies below vary in size, but not in a commitment to safety that goes well beyond holding tailgate meetings.

Safety first, last, always

“’Safety’ is a word that, at this company, stands equal with ‘quality’ and ‘production,’” said Mike Dingman, senior vice president of Corporate safety for Calabasas, California-based ValleyCrest Landscape Companies, Inc.

With more than 10,000 employees in 24 states, ValleyCrest has a lot of people to keep safe. “Our employees believe that ValleyCrest is concerned about their safety. Not only do we preach it, but our employees actually see it and believe it.”

Dingman explained how it works. “every week, all the division presidents hold a weekly safety call with their managers. That sets the tone for the week. We have 52 safety topics a year. They’ll discuss one of those, plus any incidents that have occurred, or any information that needs to go out. The managers are then tasked to get that information down to the weekly tailgate meetings in the field.”

ValleyCrest’s new hire safety orientation video is extremely comprehensive. Topics covered include hand and foot protection, working in confined spaces, hazardous materials, ladder safety, heat and cold precautions, bloodborne pathogens, and even how to properly empty a garbage can (not with your fingers inside; you could be cut by broken glass or syringes). Like all their safety materials, it comes in both English and Spanish versions.

More safety, more money for you

Having a safety program in place will lower your worker’s comp premiums, but it’s not a direct discount. Carriers base premiums on something called an “experience modification.” The better your experience mod, the less you pay, and vice versa. “After a number of years with them, if you build up a good experience mod, they give you a discount. But if you have bad losses, they add a percentage to your fees,” says Nelson Colvin, president of Landscape Contractor’s Insurance Services, Inc., in Chatsworth, California.

“We’ve been fairly fortunate in that we’ve got a good rating. Managing to keep it, that’s another story,” said roger Myers, owner of American Beauty Landscape, Inc., Youngstown, Ohio, a company with 49 employees. “It’s a sad state when you have coverage, but decide to pay out-of-pocket so that your premiums don’t increase. But we do try to take care of the small things ourselves, saving the insurance for anything catastrophic. knock on wood, in 33 years, we’ve never had anything that’s put anybody out of work for any length of time.”

“Each separate injury stays with your experience mod for three years. You can have higher premiums that whole time,” said Denise Ritch, director of human resources for Gachina Landscape Management in Menlo Park, California. But there are also rebates from carriers when they have profitable years. Those rebates can put tens of thousands of dollars back in your pocket, depending on how much coverage you have.

“At Gachina, our accident prevention program starts with new hire orientation,” said Ritch. Gachina has 340 employees. “Every manager has biweekly tailgate training meetings with every crew. Managers also conduct weekly safety inspections. They visit jobsites and see if there are any unsafe actions or conditions. They also check to see if their crews are wearing all their protective equipment. And every crew starts work each morning after a stretching session.”

“Safety’s gotta be number one,” said Myers. “It’s important to follow all the OSHA rules and regulations and the proper procedures for the use of machinery. Our drivers all have commercial driver’s licenses and are better trained than they need to be. We’re constantly reviewing our safety procedures.”

Even if your company is small, you can still access professional safety training materials, often for free. They are available from OSHA, from equipment vendors, and even your insurance broker. “I have a lending library of safety videos for our clients to use in tailgate meetings,” said Colvin.

PLANET has developed new interactive safety instruction courses, “How Do We Protect Our Bodies?” and “How Do We Protect Our Ears?” that can be downloaded at no charge or obtained on DVD. “There’s nothing quite like this, this interactive, in the industry,” says membership manager Cheryl Claborn. There’s even a game on hearing safety called ‘Jeop-EAR-dy.’ Instead of a static video that your employees can just tune out, they must answer questions throughout the presentation. “Research shows that trainees must be able to voice their objections to new ideas and contribute their own solutions to problems,” the description states. Presenters can easily switch from English to Spanish. By the way, you don’t have to be a PLANET member to use them.

Safety training is also a part of new hire orientation at Stay Green, Inc., based in Santa Clarita, California. This company has 280 employees at several yards spread around Southern California. Human resources safety and training manager Jorge Donapetry is charged with making sure “Safety First” isn’t just a slogan imprinted on employees’ vests. Safety is very important to Stay Green.

All the production managers hold safety meetings every other week with our employees in the yard, before they head out.” At most yards, they’re conducted in Spanish. “And when our crews do leave the yards, they see signs saying, ‘I will remember to be safe today,’” said Donapetry.

Insurance is a must

Of course, accidents are bad for business. You want to keep your people on the job, healthy and safe, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s expensive not to. Workers compensation insurance premiums are high enough. Pile up too many accidents, and they soar even higher.

The high cost of insurance causes some contractors to forgo it entirely. That’s a dangerous thing to do. “A lot of contractors claim that they have no employees, or that they’re ‘self-insured,’” said Colvin. “But suppose someone is killed on the job, or falls out of a tree and is so badly injured that he can’t work anymore. If that contractor doesn’t have insurance, he’s liable. He could lose everything—his house and his business.”

So what kind of coverage should you get? “Contractors need a business insurance package that includes general liability, automobile insurance and worker’s compensation,” said Colvin. Such a package will even cover you if, as in one case Colvin mentioned, an employee comes back later and robs a client’s house. “In that incident, because the contractor brought that employee to the site, he was held liable.”

A contractor just starting out business, with few assets, should at least get worker’s comp through his state’s worker’s compensation fund. These funds are the court of last resort. They have to cover you even if no one else will.

“We require our clients to have a tailgate meeting at least every two weeks,” said Colvin. “We recommend doing it every payday, because the chances of people showing up for work are greater. The meetings don’t have to be long—they can be fifteen minutes. But if they do it every two weeks, the guys get the message.”

Holding people accountable

There are lots of ways of making sure your guys and gals “get the message.” At Stay Green, everyone is required to wear safety vests. Show up in the yard without it, you get sent home for the day. “Our new employees wear orange vests. The color triggers something in the minds of the old-timers, that they should pay attention and make sure the new guy is doing things right,” said Donapetry.

Stay Green has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards bypassing any safety devices. Getting caught cabling down your mower throttle, like John Doe who lost the tips of his fingers, can get you terminated. (In fact, it was a Stay Green employee who had that particular accident.) “We get people from other companies coming in and doing things like that,” said Donapetry. “We let them know right away that we don’t allow it.”

You have to be vigilant, and hold people accountable when they don’t follow the rules. “I’ve heard a myriad of excuses (for not wearing protective gear),” said Dingman. “It’s a general attitude of, ‘I’m not going to get hurt,’ and ‘It can’t happen to me.’ It’s human nature to believe that you don’t need certain things because you can take care of yourself, until something happens to change that.”

“People don’t like to wear their personal protective equipment, especially when it’s hot,” said Claborn.

“Even though an employer can tell an employee to wear the equipment, they can’t be with them 24/7.” Surprise inspections can help take care of that. “We recently had a boot inspection, to make sure everyone was wearing the right footwear, with plastic reinforced toes,” said Donapetry.


Some companies use positive incentives to encourage safety. Every July, as a part of ‘ValleyCrest National Safety Day,’ the company gives away new trucks to field employees with good safety records in each of its five regions. This year, five Toyota Crew Cab trucks— worth about $20,000 each—were given away. “It’s a great thing to watch,” says Dingman. “People jump up and down and scream. For some of these field employees, it’s a life-changing event.”

“At Stay Green, we have the ‘Gotcha!’ program,” said Donapetry. “Employees are rewarded with tickets when we find them doing something right.” Everyone from novice landscape workers to crew leaders at Stay Green can save up their ‘Gotcha!’ tickets for hi-def televisions, computers, Sony PlayStations and other goodies.

But not cash. “We prefer that employees get something tangible. Then, every time they play on that PlayStation or watch that TV, they remember they got it by being safe. Cash goes for bills and is forgotten,” said Donapetry.

The next level of incentive is a reward for being one year accident-free. If a whole district has not one single employee go on worker’s comp in a calendar year, every worker in that district gets two free tickets to any amusement park, plus $60 to spend there. Crew leaders get double. “We want their kids to say, ‘Hey Daddy, be safe this year, we want to go to Disneyland again,’” said Donapetry.


Also available free from PLANET is the ‘Stars Safe Company Program,’ a comprehensive safety policy that you can adapt to your company. Topics include motor vehicle safety, preventing back injuries, return-to-work/modified duty programs, chemical safety, reporting and investigating accidents, and complying with OSHA. There are also more than 50 ready-to-use forms, sample policies, payroll stuffers, posters, and other safety ideas successfully used by others.

You can also create your own safety materials, with directives specific to your company. “We’re trying to create a ‘Stay Green University,’” said Donapetry. The lack of specificity in other safety videos prompted him to grab a digital camera and start shooting. He’s directed seven so far. “Everything in our videos shows the way we want things to be done. Everyone is wearing a safety vest. Some other videos may say, ‘you don’t need a safety vest in certain situations.’ But that’s not our policy. Our videos show the way we do natural pruning, not the way some other company does it.”

Safety is worth your attention

You can’t lose by paying attention to safety. Make it clear to your employees that it’s a priority. Accidents may still happen, but a good safety program will make sure they happen less, avoiding the crippling consequences that go with them.

Perhaps Gachina’s Denise Ritch said it best: “Safety needs to be part of the fabric of a company. If it’s not, I don’t see how any company can be successful.”