Accidents Can Be a Disaster, Safety Can Be Profitable

While our work can be hazardous, it does not have to be deadly.

However, according to the recent Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, between 2003 and 2006 there were a total of 789 deaths “due to traumatic injuries among landscape services workers and their first-line supervisors.” Of those deaths, “nearly 80 percent occurred in the landscape services industry.”

Statistics don’t lie; this is one arena where the cold, hard, truthful story is told. One in every 50 landscape workers suffers an injury each year that kept her or him away from work, for an average of seven days at a time. And the cost of injury can be catastrophic.

In a recent case where a landscape crew member was struck by an errant motorist and lost his legs, a New York jury returned a $11.2 million verdict; more than half the blame was apportioned against the employer, charging improper training.

These shocking statistics and story all show that lack of safety can take a massive human and economic toll. The flip side, though, is also true. Safety can be profitable. First and foremost, it protects the lives and health of both your employees and your customers. Second, it means that your company is effectively putting into action the extensive and ongoing safety training that you are doing with your employees, both at headquarters and “on the tailgate.” Finally, running a company with an exemplary safety record can put actual dollars in your pocket by saving you money on your premiums.

Nelson Colvin, a former president of the California Landscape Contractors Association and now president of Golden Oak Cooperative Corporation in Chatsworth, California (a cooperative group that provides insurance coverage for landscape industry businesses), explains the dollars and cents of safety when it comes to workers’ compensation, the system that pays workers wages and health bills for on-the-job injuries.

Most landscape contractors with any significant number of employees are in the various state systems. Those that aren’t are risking shattering losses in the event of an employee accident.

“The idea is to stay safe and avoid losses,” Colvin says. “Though the workers’ compensation system is administered differently in different states, the principles are the same no matter where you are. In California, your workers’ comp experience is rated by the state. You start with a baseline rating of 100, and you get adjusted up or down, based on claims made during a three-year period.”

Colvin talks through the numbers with this example: “Say you’ve got 400 employees at $15 an hour. That’s a $720,000 annual payroll. With a workers’ comp rating of 100, your premiums could be eight dollars per $1000 of payroll. That’s an annual insurance bill of $57,000. If you have a bunch of accidents, you could find yourself re-rated up to 125, which means a 25 percent higher premium. When that happens, you’ll find yourself paying $72,000 a year on the same payroll. Potentially, you could get re-rated again to 160—then prepare to pay through the nose.”

It can also go in the other direction, Colvin points out. “Get modified to a 75 rating for good safety, and your payment could drop as low as $42,000.”

In Colvin’s opinion, insurers are very good at looking out for their interests when there are accidents, as in fighting the claim. But they are not nearly as good at being proactive with their insured customers. Safety training is left up to the individual company.

Many in the industry meet the challenge through a combination of safety manuals for study, work-yard briefings, ‘tailgate talks,’ and one-on-one supervisor-employee trainings. Extra care is taken with employees new to the industry or new to the company. With the kind of employee turnover that’s too often found in the industry, training never stops.

Franchisor U.S. Lawns, based in Orlando, Florida, and owned by industry giant ValleyCrest Landscape Companies of Calabasas, California, tries to inculcate a culture of safety among its 200-plus franchisees.

Mike Fitzpatrick, U.S. Lawns vice president who has been in the industry for two decades and with the company since 1999, is in charge of all franchise support, as well as the company’s national accounts. He says that U.S. Lawns is striving for a safety culture from the top down, and that the top includes him.

“Safety is a core competency in our business,” Fitzpatrick explains. “It’s job number one. Every single one of our franchisees gets a documented safety manual that’s two inches thick, covering everything from fire prevention to blood-borne pathogens, to the safe operation of motor vehicles. The manual sets out our safety rules and policies, and even diagrams our weekly tailgate talks for crew chiefs and crew members.”

Fitzpatrick is adamant that crew chiefs pay particular attention to new employees. Just as many military casualties occur with a soldier’s first exposure to combat, Fitzpatrick believes that most accidents happen in the first 90 days on the job. He also cites Mondays as worrisome, when crew members might be unfocused after a weekend away from the job.

“We try to do our tailgate meetings on Monday mornings,” he explains. “We’ve got 62 separate topics in our safety binder for crew chiefs to use, and they use their judgment, depending on what’s most relevant. If there’s been a lot of rain, it could be a tailgate talk on wet weather driving. If trees are on the agenda, it could be about safe pruning, or eye safety, or any other thing that the crew chief thinks is relevant to cover.”

Mike Dingman, senior vice president at ValleyCrest, who oversees the company’s safety program, is also alert to that ‘first 90 days’ window of vulnerability for rookie accidents. “We’ve developed a buddy system on jobsites, as well as created an easy way for new crew members to learn safety habits,” he says. “Workers must wear a green safety vest for the first 90 days. There are a couple of simple reasons we do that. One is that it makes them more visible in the field, and second, it allows more experienced workers to keep an eye on them.”

{::PAGEBREAK::}At Stay Green in Santa Clarita, California, Rene Rivera, vice president of operations, and Jorge Donapretry, human resources, say that seven out of ten accidents happen during the first year a new hire is on the job, and many of those during the first 90 days.

“We do an hour-and-a-half orientation for all new hires,” Donapetry says. “And a good chunk of that has to do with safety procedures.” The company also has a 10-member safety committee that works directly with crew chiefs.

“The safety committee members travel from jobsite to jobsite, overseeing the crew chiefs, and looking closely at safety practices,” says Rivera. Stay Green has 250 employees.

Another key area covered in manuals, tailgate talks, and one-on-one training sessions is safety behind the wheel. One bad truck-and-trailer accident can ruin a whole day. For a company like ValleyCrest, with 4,100 trucks on the road, pulling more than 2,200 trailers, vehicular safety is paramount.

There are many things a landscape contractor can do to reduce the risk of on-the-road accidents. First of all, check the driving record of any employee who will ever be behind the wheel. Mark Borst, president of the 75-person firm of Borst Landscaping in Allendale, New Jersey, gets his insurer to do a “vehicle abstract” on all employees, whether he expects them to be drivers or not.

“The vehicle abstract tells me what tickets they’ve gotten, including whether they’ve ever been cited for driving under the influence. I have to tell you,” Borst confides, “that I’ve been surprised by some of what gets reported back to me. It is not always the person that you think will have a bad record who turns out to be your greatest risk.”

In addition, many companies won’t let a particular driver behind the wheel until and unless he’s been accompanied in the passenger seat by a supervisor or crew chief.

Like Fitzpatrick, safety is job number one for Borst, whose favorite safety-reinforcement device is his iPhone camera. Borst is the first person to arrive at his staging yard in the morning, and for the first 15 or 20 minutes he walks the yard, taking photographs.

“They call me ‘the nut’,” he recounts, “because I’m out there with my iPhone, taking pictures of things I don’t like and emailing them to my crew chiefs right then and there. But I’ll tell you, it works.”

“My company uses a very common-sense approach. I’m not big on sitting my guys down in a classroom,” says Borst, who takes a hands-on approach to safety training. “I am big on having my crew chiefs constantly teaching common sense, and never letting routine get in the way of safety awareness.”

Even as Borst has his crew chiefs conduct tailgate safety talks every other week, there are still what he calls ‘dumb’ injuries. Like the guy who leans against a garage door and slices his finger open on a sliver of metal, or a member of a mowing crew who jumps off the back of a pickup truck and twists an ankle. These injuries could be prevented with just a little more care.

Industry veteran Jerry White, managing partner of a division of ND Landscape called Grassmaster Plus, based in Georgetown, Massa chusetts, does upwards of $7 million in annual sales, and has 70 employees. He says, “With about 60 percent of our work in design/build, and about 40 percent in maintenance, there are all sorts of safety concerns.”

White came to the business as a golf course superintendent. While that’s no longer his work focus, he has a special sensitivity to safety issues involving chemicals, fertilizers, and mowers.

“I’m adamant about how undiluted chemicals are mixed with water for application,” White declares. “I want suits, gloves, goggles, and no spillage. I want the same precautions with pesticides, and I only want trained people—ever—to mix chemicals or apply pesticides.”

On the mower front, White points out a paradox. While he would expect more accidents and injuries with rookie crewmembers, he has found the opposite to be true. The longer a crewmember has been on the job, the greater their chance of sloppiness and overconfidence in themselves and their equipment, and the more possibility for accidents.

“It’s those ride-on spreaders and ride-on mowers,” White says with a sigh. “The guys get so used to them that they become overconfident, and use them on slopes where they ought to use a walk-behind. That’s an invitation to a rollover. In a way, the technology has gotten so good, and the ride-ons are so much faster and easier than the walk-behinds, that the guys get lazy.”

One of the real challenges all landscape businesses face is staff turnover. You put all this effort into safety training, and then when a worker or workers you’ve trained departs on two weeks—or two hours’—notice, you’re in a pressure cooker. Turnover can be an occupational hazard of being the boss, and it’s never as frustrating as when it happens mid-season, when everything is go, go, go and your crews are rolling from sunrise to sunset.

In these situations and others, an audiovisual booster shot might be useful; you might also want to consider a training video. These videos, typically fifteen minutes in length, cover all the key areas of landscape services operation, from mower engines and fueling to trucks and trailers. A worker can watch the video at home or at the office, and even be tested on its contents.

Despite all your best precautions, tailgate meetings, and training, accidents will happen. When those accidents require medical treatment, it doesn’t mean that the injured person always needs to go to the emergency room. You might save a fair amount of money and time by bringing the worker to a nearby urgent care center. You might even be able to cut a deal with a local urgent care facility to serve as your medical headquarters for the season.

Colvin offers one more tip that can make safety more profitable. Before anyone comes to work at your firm, have them sign a simple one-page form —you can decide the precise language with your attorney—that states that to their knowledge, they have no medical condition that would interfere in any way or have any impact on their doing the job. Also, that they have no prior medical condition that could be made worse by the carrying out of any work duties, even in the case of accident or injury.

“Here’s why this can be valuable,” Colvin explains. “If a worker gets injured on the job, he or she won’t be able to claim that it aggravated an old shoulder injury, or knee injury, or what-not. They can’t make that claim.”

With a one-in-50 likelihood of on-the-job injury or accident, anything that can reduce claims is a good thing. To reduce the number of accidents is even better. When you can do both, safety gets profitable, indeed.