Winning the Safety Race

When NASCAR drivers set off, they’re protected by powerful safety measures. They wear thickly-padded helmets, and their cars are superbly engineered to make crashing at a third the speed of sound a survivable experience, if not a safe one.

However, even all of this isn’t enough. The most important component is their training: NASCAR drivers are all highly skilled, and constantly on the lookout for danger.

Although we work with forces that are considerably less extreme, our mowing operations can pose risks that can be just as fatal. As responsible members of thegreen industry, we need to address those risks. If your company isn’t large enough to afford its own safety compliance department, you may be tempted to let things lie, particularly if you’ve never had an accident.

In most cases, relying on common sense to let a safety program develop organically is a mistake, for two reasons.

First off, common sense isn’t that common. Even the smartest employee has bad days, and first-timers do the darndest things. Secondly, you’re letting a golden opportunity pass you by.

This is the perfect chance to set the tone of your operation for new hires, and reinforce your company values with longtime employees. By setting up a standard training plan, you can ensure that whatever you think is most important is getting emphasized, and that there aren’t any hidden bad habits lurking in your workforce.

At Ruppert Landscape in Laytonsville, Maryland, the training regime starts with a little required reading, according to their safety and loss prevention manager, Dave Sanders. “We use a combination of operator manuals, which guys are required to read, and videos,” he said. “Both are offered by the mower manufacturers, and really jumpstart the process of understanding all the safety features on our machines.”

Sanders doesn’t leave it at that, nor did any of the companies I talked with. Any college professor worth his salary will tell you that teaching a lesson in just one way isn’t enough. Some people learn best by seeing, some by listening and some by doing. Most people have an organic understanding, if not a formal one, of how they learn best, so having a wide variety of teaching methods will let you accommodate all the different learning styles.

If you know that Employee A takes forever to do paperwork, but never forgets a word you tell him, then a video on mower safety or a talk by his foreman will probably stick better than an operator manual. Even though Employee B reads Aristotle in the original Greek as a hobby, you can’t just give him a booklet and assume it’ll result in correct action on his first day.

Hands-on operation is the gold standard for telling whether or not your training procedures have taken hold. If an employee can demonstrate the right way to operate a machine to his crew leader without any guidance, then you can be sure that he’s aware of what he’s supposed to do.

That’s why companies like Sanders’ hold annual safety rodeos every spring, to make sure everybody gets that irreplaceable hands-on experience. “It’s a one-day training session where we go through every machine that we have, with all the experienced people and all the new people,” hesaid. “That way, we know that everybody is acclimated to all of the safety processes on all of our machines.” This day of training helps to kick off additional one-on-one on-the-job trainings.

So what are the basics that employees need to be aware of in order to stay safe? It m ay seem like old hat to cover that material here, but the first rule of top-notch safety is, “There’s no such thing as being too careful.”

One of the less considered dangers of commercial mowers is heat.

The combustion engines on your mowers are so wildly effective because they’re harnessing the power of explosives, and generating a lot of heat in the process. On hot days, after hours of operation, a mower at rest is still a serious fire risk.

Mostly, that risk is from refueling. Picture an operator who realizes that he’s low on fuel in the middle of the day, and drives his mower right back to the trailer and the spare gas can. His mind is on the Fantasy Football League rather than refueling, and whoopsie! Fuel hits hot metal, where it ignites, and now—if you’re lucky—you’re only down one mower. If you aren’t lucky, you’re out a whole trailer or worse: your employee is seriously hurt.

A common cause of mower-related fatalities is rollovers. We are called upon to cut embankments and slopes every day, and it’s important to remember that slopes can be very hazardous environments, particularly if they’re covered in wet, slippery grass. About once a month, I read about someone getting killed or seriously injured when their mower flips over and traps them underneath.

Dyle MacGregor, owner of Keep It Green Landscaping in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, says that part of mower safety is knowing where not to mow.

“We don’t ride up really steep inclines, and we don’t use ride-on machines along the edges of lakes and ponds,” he said. A safer option is to mow slopes with a walk-behind, but only using a side-to-side pattern. That way, the operator can’t slip walking up the slope, and get run over when he loses his grip.

For some, using a separate machine for slopes is a real drag on efficiency, but Mac- Gregor is a self-professed stickler for safety, and would rather his employees always err on the side of caution. Certainly, if an operator chooses to use a ride-on mower on an incline, it’s generally safer for him to mow up and down the slope rather than side to side. In addition, the Roll-Over Protection System (ROPS) should always be engaged.

Commercial mowers are designed with safety considerations in mind, and a roll bar is just one type of protection they offer. They also feature some sort of Operator Presence Controls (OPCs), which are supposed to stop the mower should the operator lose control, or even just lose contact with the machine.

OPCs can be as simple as an extra bar by the handle that the driver needs to grip to keep the blades turning, or as complex as a pressure switch on the seat, so that if the operator falls off, the blades will disengage. Because they’re engineered to play it safe at all costs, OPCs can be a little finicky sometimes, and some crew members will be tempted to avoid the hassle and bypass them.

“We never disconnect any of the manufacturer’s safety measures on our equipment; that’s critical,” said MacGregor. If one of your workers is willing to sabotage his own safety, and the safety of those around him, by zip-tying the OPC bar to the handle, what other corners is he thinking about cutting?

Another important safety measure that may meet with some resistance from employees is Personal Protection Equipment, or PPE. Maybe they find heavy boots, long sleeves and ear protection uncomfortable on long hot days, or maybe they just don’t like the fashion statement of high-visibility attire. Depending on your state, PPE may be required by law, but even so, you may still have to do some convincing.

MacGregor keeps a baseball around that he found on a job years ago, for just such an occasion. “It has obviously been run over by a lawn mower; it has a gash in the leather, and the yarn wrap underneath it is coming out,” he says.

“When new people come in, I show them the baseball, so they can see what would happen to their foot if they are just wearing tennis shoes.”

It’s a very dangerous place beneath a mower’s deck, and keeping hands and feet well clear of the area isn’t the only thing you have to worry about. It’s also a bad idea to mow over any sort of inanimate object. Running over glass bottles or a length of wire is bad enough, but what about hitting some outdoor piping for water, or for heating oil?

Even catching a rock can have deadly consequences, which is why it’s so important for the discharge chute to remain in place when the mower isn’t catching clippings. Yes, it can be a hassle to stop and clean grass out of the mower’s deck periodically. Yet, that’s considerably better than letting a small rock fly out of the mower with more energy than a .357 caliber bullet from a handgun.

There was one major point that everyone I talked with agreed upon when it comes to mower safety: You have to build a culture of safety into your company if you want your employees to take it seriously. “You have to get the guys involved,” said Tony Gile, general manager at Alliance Landscape Company in Fort Worth, Texas. “You have to practice that culture; you can’t just preach it.”

If you want your employees to ‘buy in,’ you have to show them that you take it seriously, too. Bring up different potential dangers in your tailgate meetings, for one thing. For another, put up a notice whenever someone has a close call, to serve as a reminder for everyone.

It’s as much an exercise in good communication as it is good education.

Anyone can tell their employees to do something the right way, but showing them that it really matters to you that they take care of themselves and their coworkers takes some work.

When you’re interviewing new employees, ask if they have any allergies or medical conditions, so you can make accommodations for them. Even if someone has his own EpiPen, in a severe attack, it may be up to his fellow crew members to administer it. Make it clear that there won’t be any reprisals should a crew member feel that he isn’t up to performing a particular task safely.

At Alliance, Gile has done just that. He tells his crews, “If you don’t feel comfortable or you don’t have enough experience to do something, then go to your foreman or one of the managers and tell them. We’ll figure out another way to get it done.”

As with many large landscape companies, he has a system of rewards and punishments to encourage safe behavior and discourage unnecessary risks. “I’ve learned that a rewards system usually works better than hard discipline,” Giles said. “Reward people who are doing things right, and other guys will see that, and will want to be rewarded as well.”

Consider rewarding crews with gift cards if they don’t just pass, but ace a safety spot-check. If all your crews pass for a month, maybe you throw a company lunch. If an employee goes above and beyond, or comes up with a really good idea, maybe give him tickets to a local sports game. Incentive programs can go awry if they’re taken for granted or seem unfair, so keep that in mind when designing your own.

If an employee disregards safety procedures, your first reaction shouldn’t be thumbscrews or the rack. He might mend his ways if you show him how seriously you take the matter, and give him a chance to relearn. That said, if an otherwise excellent employee continuously and blatantly disregards the measures that protect everyone, ask yourself what that says about his character.

Making safety a business practice is good sense, but making it a mindset can be transformative. Itquickly becomes an almost meditative practice, a never-ending journey that teaches us to be mindful in everything we do: Lift with the legs, not the back, every time. Climb down off the truck instead of jumping, every time.

That kind of mindfulness is not easy, but it delivers manifold benefits, because it transfers into everything else one does. The employee who spends his day in the field entirely focused on his work will be a safer, more effective and more creative employee than the one who’s wondering what he’ll have for dinner tonight. Company safety starts from the top, and if you get into it, your employees will follow.