June 12 2013 09:11 AM
You might not expect a contractor to tell you a story that sounds like it’s right out of “Mission: Impossible.” But Bob Dobson, president of Monmouth, New Jersey-based Middletown Sprinkler Company, Inc., and current president of the Irrigation Association, has one.

“I went into a factory where we’d installed a big irrigation system. I needed to turn on a booster pump in the mechanical room that had been partially made into an office.”

“When I turned the pump on, the side of it ruptured. Hundreds of gallons of water started spilling out,” said Dobson. Electrical splices on the 480-volt pump were only a few inches off the floor.

“Now I found myself standing in about six inches of water with no time to get out. My only chance was to get to the electrical panel before the water hit those splices. But they’d stored a bunch of junk between the pump and the fuse box, and it was almost impossible to get to.”

This near-electrocution experience taught Dobson a valuable lesson. “Now, whenever we design a pump room, one of the things that we’re pretty insistent upon is that when you open the door the main electrical panel will be right there, on the right-hand side. You can turn the electricity off before you even set foot in there.”

That pump room scene could have come right out of a safety film, as a cautionary example. Videos, interactive training and tailgate talks all play an important role in keeping safety first and foremost.

These days, with so many materials available, many of them free, there’s no excuse for not having some kind of safety program. Even the smallest start-up, one-truck landscape company can have one. By not following safety rules, one risks OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) fines, higher insurance premiums and worse.

Forget about all that for a second. How much is someone’s ability to ever work again worth? How much is someone’s eye worth? Someone’s life, maybe even yours? Spending a little bit of time on safety now can save you a pile of cash and regret down the line.

An accident that happened to another local businessman prompted Edward Snyder, owner/operator of Greenleaf Services, Inc., in Linville, North Carolina, to action. “The owner of a crane company was just walking to lunch one day when someone tragically backed over him and he was killed.”

This incident was on Snyder’s mind when he purchased a new piece of equipment, and it became apparent that it was difficult to see out the back. “So we installed a rear-view camera on it. It also has audio, so you can hear as well as see. Then we decided to do the same thing on our main crew truck.”

And that’s not all. Greenleaf is in the process of installing backup cameras in all of its trucks, skid steers and vehicles with enclosed cabs.

“Some contractors will spend $14,000 on a mower, but not ten cents to train the guy on it,” said Arden Urbano, vice president of sales and marketing for LS Training System in London, Ontario, Canada, a company that provides interactive safety training for green industry and other construction-related fields.

“There can be a mental block,” said Urbano. “Only a niche number of people look at safety training and see the benefits in the form of return on investment (ROI), which is huge. It solves so many problems.”

One of those is consistency. How do you maintain standards when turnover is high, as it tends to be in our industry? “All the crew members are thinking, ‘Oh, no, here comes the new guy,’” said Urbano.

What usually happens is that the newbie is paired up with another employee, “so the new guy learns from another guy, who is not a trainer. Then that person passes on all of his bad habits to the new person.” A formal training program, starting on every employee’s first day, keeps everyone on the same page.

Required for Bidding 

Contractors who work in the commercial arena have an even bigger incentive to implement safety programs. More and more, they’re becoming a requirement before you can even bid on a commercial job.

“Companies that are soliciting bids for commercial work are demanding them,” said Urbano. “If your modification rate exceeds a certain amount, they’re not going to even let you bid. And then, they squeeze you, saying you must have better training; you must be able to prove what training you are doing.”

(“Experience modification rates” are computations that compare a company’s annual losses in insurance claims against its premiums over a three-year period, excluding the most current year.)

Tom Goding, owner and president of Mauldin, South Carolina-based Custom Landscaping & Design, Inc., confirms this. “We have to have a safety program in place before we can even bid on a lot of the commercial jobs we do. Our standards are a little higher than even OSHA makes us have.”

Liability concerns are driving this, of course. “The companies are protecting themselves legally,” says Urbano. “Say you’re mowing a company’s grounds, and a stone flies out and hits one of their clients who’s walking in. A lot of big corporations have their own training that they make you go through; they’re getting a lot fussier.”

Have Rules and Enforce Them

What’s involved in a safety program? It’s not just training, but rules. “We were seeing a number of eye injuries,” said Joe Kujawa, president of KEI Enterprises in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. “We brought in our insurance company to look at the origins of our accidents. After an analysis, we mandated safety glasses and our eye injuries went to zero. We haven’t had one in the last seven or eight years.”

“People can’t wear jewelry, piercings, rings, any of that kind of thing,” said Goding, whose workforce averages around 40 people.

“Steel-toe, steel-shank shoes are mandatory. The guys who do landscape installation have to wear back braces, shoulder harnesses and straps. And everybody has to wear safety glasses.”

In addition, Custom Landscaping requires that all employees wear long pants, no shorts or cutoffs. Anyone operating string trimmers or leaf blowers has to wear hearing protection. And “the guys that work in the construction aspect of installation have to wear gloves with hard plastic mesh, so they don’t get cuts,” says Goding.

It might go against the zeitgeist, but at Custom, cell phones during working hours are forbidden. “We don’t allow them in the field. The crew chief’s got the only cell phone and all the information. When a guy’s wife calls, he’ll go ahead and pull him aside.”

Custom doesn’t do this just to be hard-nosed. “Cell phones are a huge safety issue,” says Goding. “I’ve seen guys fall off roofs three stories high while talking on them.”

The company is strict about compliance with all the safety rules. “If they are told twice, they’re sent home,” said Goding. “If they’re written up twice for the same thing, they’re gone immediately.”

Perhaps because of his pump house experience, Dobson is adamant about extension cord safety.

“We make sure insulation hasn’t been damaged, and receptacles are grounded. We have an employee check them periodically and make sure they’re in peak operating condition.”

While we’re on the subject of grounding, Dobson suggests that you take a good look at your three-pronged extension cords once in awhile. You may find some unpleasant surprises. “I’m sure that most contractors, if they look at their extension cords, will find at least one where the ground plug has been pulled out with pliers.” Faced with a two-pronged outlet and a three-pronged cord, some workers succumb to temptation and perform a little ‘field surgery.’ Unwise and unsafe. Make it a priority Terracare Associates, a commercial landscape company headquartered in Littleton, Colorado, makes safety a high corporate value. “Safety of our employees (about 400 of them in its Colorado and California branches) and the general public is our number-one priority,” said vice president Bill Horn.

Horn also sits on the board of directors for PLANET, and has been on its safety committee for ten years. As such, he helped develop PLANET’s free STARS Safe Company program (covered later in this article).

Safety awareness starts when Terracare’s employees arrive at work in the morning. “We do stretch-and-flex exercises with all our team members, followed by a short safety talk. So when they pull out of the yards, they’re thinking safety right off the bat.”

According to him, it’s made a huge impact, as shown by the company’s modification rates, which keep trending downward. “In California, we have several hundred employees, but just two incidents for the entire year of 2012.”

Incentives Work

“We’re very proud of our safety program,” says Kujawa. “We do quite a bit around safety. It’s a very important part of our culture.”

One of the things KEI does is hold an annual Safety Day for its 110 employees. “We take one day out of production and bring everyone in to celebrate safety, whether we’re at a thousand days without lost time, or three; we bring in outside speakers. Last time, we had someone from the FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) who gave a talk on safety while driving with a truck and trailer.” The company also does internal safety training with equipment manufacturers.

Participation in weekly tailgate talks is encouraged by an incentive program.

KEI’s account managers are incentivized according to the number of tailgate talks delivered on time. “Because things always come up,” says Kujawa, “there’s always the, ‘We’re so busy today, can’t do it,’ excuse.” The incentive program works. “We have an excellent worker’s comp mod, and it’s gotten better over the years,” says Kujawa.

Custom Landscaping has a simpler incentive program. “We don’t like to have any injuries, so we give our people a bonus percentage in December for an accident-free year,” says Goding, “and it’s split with everybody.”

Safe Company, Stable Workforce

Safety programs lower insurance premiums. But that’s not all they do. When employers truly care about their safety, workers can feel it. Goding says that money is a part of his motivation, but overall, “You want to be safe. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Back in the day, we didn’t have all this (safety gear). I’ve had broken toes, hands all beaten up. You don’t want to see people getting hurt when they don’t have to.”

“As a business owner, it’s my responsibility to make sure that people get home to their families safely at the end of the day,” says Snyder. “Sure, there’s a monetary side to that, but it goes way beyond that.”

Most of his employees have been with him for eight to twelve years, and he thinks the company’s culture of safety is a big part of that.

Horn says that encouraging a culture of safety has helped Terracare retain quality employees, too. “People want to work for us, because they know we take really good care of our employees. We don’t have high turnover.”

“We did an employee safety perception survey last year during our last Safety Day,” said Kujawa. “We  were very happy with the results. Overwhelmingly, people found our policies valuable, valid and not onerous.”

The survey showed that the vast majority of KEI employees feel comfortable turning down work if any- one asks them to do something questionable, even if that person is a confront co-workers they see doing supervisor. They’re also willing to unsafe things. “Our people don’t feel pressured to do things in an unsafe manner,” said Kujawa.

Goding insists that his employees wear 30 SPF sunblock on their faces and arms. “I’m a blond-haired, blueeyed guy who’s been doing this for 50 years, and the sun has gotten to me. I’ve had multiple cases of skin cancer, more than 200 sun-related items taken off my arms, neck and head. I don’t want my guys to go through that.”

Free Resources

You can implement a safety program for little or no money. There are excellent materials available at no charge from OSHA and PLANET. Even a company as large as KEI uses them. “We also use outside training companies,” says Kujawa.

“There are certain certifications that are required, like lift and fall protection, and so we’ll hire an outside licensed trainer to get those.

We also use the Wisconsin Safety Council. They put on ‘train the trainer’ type seminars. We use them for our annual forklift or lifttruck staff certifications.”

KEI uses OSHA’s QuickCards for tailgate talks. “Ohio State University has a great resource of tailgate talks that we use weekly,” said Kujawa. “They provide quizzes as well.”

The resource he’s referring to is “Tailgate Safety Training for Landscaping and Horticultural Services.”

It is quite comprehensive, and available at no charge. There are selfstudy modules with quizzes and trainer modules, both in English and Spanish. Topics include chainsaw, mower and skid steer safety, electrical shock, heat and cold stress, pesticide exposure, and many, many others. Find it at ohioline.osu.edu/aex-fact/192/ index.html.

PLANET has a wealth of free resources, including an interactive training program, “How Do We Protect Our Ears and Our Bodies?” in English and Spanish. You can download it or get it on DVD. Find it at www.landcarenetwork.org/riskmgmt/training.cfm.

Don’t have time to develop a safety program and written policies? PLANET’s got your back; the STARS Safe Company Program is a comprehensive company safety policy on CD.

It includes motor vehicle safety, preventing back injuries, return-towork/modified duty programs, chemical safety, complying with OSHA, and more. It includes more than 50 ready-to-use forms, sample policies and payroll stuffers, many in Spanish. It’s at www.landcarenetwork.org/riskmgmt/stars.cfm.

Now you really have no excuse for not having a safety program!

Safety is profitable, while not being safe is very, very, costly, indeed. Don’t cut corners where safety is involved. It just hurts everybody too much.