Safety: It’s everyone’s job

By Anne Blankenbiller

As a landscape contractor you’ve probably heard about or even seen an injury on the job. Because of the nature of the work, the use of sharp, powerful and heavy equipment, accidents like a landscape worker losing a finger in a mower, tipping a large piece of equipment, or sustaining injuries from trying to lift or move a heavy boulder, are all too common.

It is no secret that our industry can be dangerous. Mishaps can and will happen, and every member of your crew is susceptible to injury. The added risk of working with power equipment close to people in residential neighborhoods and in public spaces makes safety training a high priority for landscape contractors.

Company owners want to make sure their employees can finish the work day without incident so they can go home to their families in one piece. The way to do that is to have a well-planned and executed safety program. Being successful requires 1) creating a thorough safety education program, and 2) getting your employees engaged in the process by encouraging them to realize their responsibility in the program’s success.

Safety isn’t just the job of the owner or supervisor, it’s the job of everyone in the company. Employees need to be involved and take ownership in it.

Tailored to your company

Dyle MacGregor has been the owner of Keep It Green Landscaping, Fair Lawn, New Jersey, for more than 35 years. His advice to companies — especially younger ones — is to get a safety program started right away. “It doesn’t have to be perfect from day one,” Mac- Gregor says. “You can always tweak it and make it better.”

According to Dr. Sam Steel, safety advisor for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, Fairfax, Virginia, a company’s safety program should include a clear and concise written policy statement, a comprehensive assessment of work site hazards and effective safety training based upon the hazard analysis.

This program should be tailored to the needs of the company according to the specific work done by employees and the equipment used. It should cover safety policies and practices such as equipment handling, operating and maintenance; required safety gear and person al protective clothing; and specific safety procedures to protect employees and the public when at a job site.

Steel adds that companies should document all training provided to each employee and administer an effective evaluation to measure how workers are applying the safety training to determine when and if retraining is needed.

Bountiful resources

Developing a thorough safety education program for your employees may seem daunting, but resources abound for contractors looking to create a program or simply update what they currently have.

NALP offers numerous resources on its website (www.landscapeprofessionals.org), including a downloadable landscape safety training program; links to Occupational Safety and Health Administration training; and numerous articles and suggested safety training resources.

NALP also offers a Safe Company Program that provides ideas and multiple ready-to-use documents for company training. Those who sign up to be Safe Company participants receive access to numerous resources for establishing a company safety program, educating employees, keeping track of progress and promoting the company’s commitment to safety.

NALP members can access this program and download everything from sample safety policies, a tailgate training manual, ready-to-use forms and access to safety webinars, as well as numerous other online resources.

Many of the items are provided in an electronic version, and the “Safe Company Program Manual” is available in both English and Spanish and is customizable to meet a company’s needs. Participants can even earn safety recognition awards, further demonstrating a commitment to company safety.

OSHA offers a “Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs” document that is considered an excellent resource for companies looking to develop or revise their written health and safety programs. This document is available at www.osha.gov/shpguidelines.

In 2016, OSHA also created a separate set of guidelines specifically for the construction industry. These guidelines, titled “Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs in Construction,” are easily applied to the landscape industry.

OSHA also offers a landscape-specific page available at www.osha.gov/SLTC/landscaping/safety programs.html. It addresses every subset of landscape industry safety.

For more than 20 years, Ed Snyder, owner of Greenleaf Services Inc., Linville, North Carolina, says he has gained valuable information from attending green industry conferences and expos. The events have allowed him to learn about what other landscape outfits are doing with regard to safety training, as well as other areas of business. He says he has implemented many of these ideas in his own company.

State associations, insurance carriers, equipment manufacturers and private training companies also offer valuable safety training resources for landscape contractors.

Training on day one and beyond

Steel advises contractors to involve and engage employees with safety training beginning with their first day on the job, starting with sharing the company’s written safety policies with them during new-employee orientation. He adds that it is important to present this information in a manner and language that is understandable to all of your workers.

Many contractors follow up this orientation with having new employees shadow a veteran employee for a period of time to learn and practice work procedures, including safe operation of equipment.

Continually reinforcing safety issues with all employees, especially as the seasons change, is just as important.

At Keep It Green Landscaping, MacGregor conducts regular 15-to-20-minute tailgate sessions — kind of like pep talks, but with a safety emphasis. He gears these sessions to the time of year. For example, heat exhaustion isn’t a relevant topic in March, but in July, it is. “We try to keep it timely so that it lands on the right set of ears,” MacGregor said.

He also photocopies articles about safety and puts them in with employee’s paychecks. These articles are three-hole-punched so employees can add them to their own company handbooks and keep them for future reference.

According to MacGregor, a great way to determine what safety practices need to be reinforced is by simply watching your crews work. “Just stand back and watch and see how things are being implemented compared to how they should be implemented,” he says. “There could be a gap between the standard procedure and what is happening out in the field.”

From his experience, becoming complacent in a job is the biggest safety hazard, and one that needs to be repeatedly addressed. “Once someone gets really comfortable with their job, they go beyond comfortable to complacent,” MacGregor says. The employee who gets hurt is likely to be the one who al ways says, “I will never get hurt.”

A group effort

John Ryman has discovered the importance of involving employees as much as possible in his company’s safety program. Ryman is the president of Quality Lawn, Landscape & Fence Inc., in Casstown, Ohio.

His company gathers in the shop for weekly safety tailgate meetings first thing every Monday morning. Ryman has found this is the best time to do these. Too many unexpected variables can throw the meetings off schedule if they’re held later in the week, he says. By having the meetings Monday mornings, nothing gets in the way.

The company creates a calendar for the Monday morning safety meetings, and every employee has a designated week where he’s responsible for providing the safety tip.

The employee in charge of the Monday meeting picks and researches a topic that is relevant to discuss — either because it relates to what he does or to the specific season of work they are in.

For example, Ryman says, “A few weeks ago someone brought up not stepping on trailer fenders this time of year, because there’s frost on them, and it’s like stepping on a sheet of ice.” A relevant topic covered during the summer months was the importance of remembering to wear sunscreen.

Ryman has a book of more than 100 tailgate meeting ideas for employees to consider when planning their Monday morning topics. However, he says today, most employees find safety topics online.

And there’s no shortage of topics. Ryman says he’s never had an employee come to him unable to find anything to talk about. He also doesn’t mind repeating certain subjects — such as ladder safety — information that bears repetition and reinforcement.

Quality Lawn, Landscape & Fence documents all facets of the meeting, including who presented the topic, what he talked about and who was in attendance.

“It is more engaging when they are a part of it rather than just listening to just one person doing the meetings,” Ryman says. He believes having employees take turns running these Monday safety meetings keeps them more aware of safety practices and gives them ownership in the program.

Employees are the ones on the job from day to day, so they have a unique perspective on what dangers their jobs pose and what safety precautions need to be discussed.

Organization begets safety

In Snyder’s observation, “I feel like organization and cleanliness lend themselves very much to being safe and productive.”

Every day, his staff starts out by cleaning the shop and all the trucks, down to the last countertop and emptied trashcan. There’s no question about where things should be placed, as tape indicates where every tool and piece of equipment is supposed to be kept. To him, organization is paramount with safety, because it puts focus on what a person is doing. It’s all about creating an environment where people can be safe as well as productive.

Following the morning cleaning, Snyder gathers all the field employees together in a circle — also marked off by tape on the shop floor — and everyone makes a safety pledge for the day. It includes a focus on what they’re going to do that day, and a commitment to end it safely and get back home to their families. After a final group cheer, everyone heads off to go about their day.

At Quality Lawn, Landscape & Fence, gathering together at the start of every day gives Ryman the opportunity to send his employees out to their prospective tasks in an organized and focused manner, with a daily reminder of the importance of being safe.

His employees also see constant visual reminders, via safety signage and posters hanging in the shop. These illustrate, among other things, what protective equipment to wear and how to operate equipment.

Ryman says, “We tell our employees that we want everybody to work as efficiently as possible, but we never want anyone to work so hastily that they put themselves in an unsafe position.”

Ryman says he also tries to continually provide new information to help keep his employees safe and healthy. For example, he is considering implementing a new stretching program, which could include a 10- or 15-minute routine in the morning to warm up muscles and help prevent strains and injuries. The idea came from NALP, and includes a poster that can be hung in the shop, illustrating six to eight stretches to do before engaging in lifting or strenuous work.

Toot your own horn

After establishing your company safety program, don’t hesitate to promote it to clients. Providing a safe working environment shows your professionalism and an extra commitment to take care of employees, as well as consumers in and around your job sites. These types of efforts not only boost your reputation but also take a step toward improving the impression consumers have of our industry.

The author is editor of Irrigation Today, a sister publication to Irrigation & Green Industry, published quarterly by the Irrigation Association, Fairfax Virginia. She can be reached at anneblankenbiller@irrigation.org.