July 24 2019 06:00 AM

Break down the key roles and steps you need to take to make safety a part of your company culture.


If someone were to ask you what core elements make up your company culture, what would you say? Would it be your firm’s commitment to the customer, passion for excellent work, competitive wages and benefits, free coffee in the breakroom? Wait a second, where does safety fall on this list? Does it even make the list?

While it may not be the first thing that comes to mind, how much (or little) you’re committed to safety plays a big part in your company culture. There’s a significant difference between safety being an item to check off on your to-do list and it being a part of your firm’s identity. In this day and age, your company probably has some sort of safety program or policies — but how effective are they?

The first and most important step landscape companies can take is to create a written safety program, according to Sam Steel, Ph.D., who serves as the safety advisor at the National Association of Landscape Professionals, based in Fairfax, Virginia. Steel has worked in safety his whole career, spending over 30 years developing, delivering and evaluating agricultural industry safety programs. He’s also no stranger to the green industry having owned and operated a landscape business for 10 years.

As safety advisor at NALP, Steel advises landscape businesses on health and safety and teaches a 10-hour U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety course specific to the landscape industry.

If a company has a safety incident reported by first responders or the firm itself — which is legally required for certain incidents — it may undergo an inspection by OSHA. “Not having a written safety program is the No. 1 reason that landscape firms get cited by OSHA inspectors,” says Steel. “If OSHA shows up and your company doesn’t have a program documented, you’ll most likely get a citation. And in 2019, it’s close to $14,000 per citation for a first-time violation of the written safety program.”

Steel says within the last five to seven years in his experience as safety adviser, “I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of firms that have their written safety programs, and they’re written in the right format and cover the different hazards that their workers would be exposed to.” And while most landscape companies have them, he finds a lot of owners aren’t sure how good their safety programs are.

The best way to make sure a written safety program is thorough is to develop it through a hazard audit system. This means that you or your safety director visit all your job sites to see if they pose any specific hazards to your employees.

Steel suggests doing this in the late winter when you know what contracts you’re going to be working on in the upcoming season. You’ll most likely find a variety of risky conditions like steep slopes, ponds that are drop-off hazards for zero-turn mowers or a brick retaining wall a piece of equipment might fall from. Once you understand all the potential hazards your workers are being exposed to, document them in your written safety program and consider having a specific written policy on each hazard that you find.

Lead by example

Creating a company culture that prioritizes safety involves key employee roles — a hierarchy that Steel calls the safety chain of command. This chain always begins with the business owner or manager. “If management is not committed to safety, employees are going to see right through that,” he explains. Set a good example by doing the same things you ask of your workers. If you’re attending safety training or visiting a site, show up in the same personal protective equipment you ask your employees to wear.

Management should commit to a calendar of scheduled safety training. If you’re going to have weekly training Monday mornings at 6:00 a.m., then make it happen. It’s often tempting to delay training because you’re strained for time.

Steel gives the example, “Let’s say you’ve had a very wet spring and you’re getting behind. What typically happens is an owner will put off safety training programs that were scheduled because they’re so far behind.” Being a former landscape business owner, Steel understands the urgency of getting employees out in field to get jobs done, but he says that prioritizing safety will convey its importance to your team.

It’s also critical that management is consistent in applying safety policies on the job site. Steel says, “It’s easy to have favorite people who work hard for you. But if they’re violating a safety policy, make sure that the policies, rules and regulations are applied consistently across the whole workforce.” He warns not to single anyone out and come down hard on them in front of others. If an employee is not following a policy, make sure to take them aside one-on-one to address the issue, he advises.

Most of all, take time to recognize and reward employees who have a good record practicing safety on the job. Steel says a lot of companies have incentive forms that a crew supervisor can turn into management, which basically gives them the opportunity to recognize when one of their workers is doing a superb job of always wearing the proper PPE and keeping it clean and well maintained, following safety policies, etc. When that person is recognized and maybe even awarded a bonus at a once-a-year safety luncheon, this reinforces the importance of safety to the whole company.

Other key roles

The second role in the chain of command is the safety director or leader. Depending on the size of your firm, this could be the human resources manager or another manager who doubles as the safety director. This person then heads up a safety committee, which provides the firm a safety calendar of topics to be discussed and trained on throughout the year.

The safety committee should meet on a regular basis and be comprised of a variety of employees within the company, from office staff, to management, to crew members. The firm owner or manager can attend some meetings but doesn’t have to go to all of them.

Their role is rather to establish the committee, support their work on an annual basis and then look at the recommendations from the safety committee and turn them into effective training.

Crew supervisors are next in the chain of command after the safety director. Since these employees usually end up doing the actual training, gaining their support and commitment to safety are essential. Steel recommends having crew supervisors do a safety focus for one minute a day, and, if practical, an additional minute or two on each job site throughout the day. It can even be done in the vehicle on the way to the first work site. These daily briefings might be about one of your policies or potentially hazardous weather conditions like storm warnings or high heat temperatures.

Close call system

One of the best ways to keep safety training relevant is to take close call incidents and go over them as a company. “When you’re experiencing a series of safety incidents, sooner or later a close call is going to turn into a hazardous event or a tragic event,” Steel says. “You can cut that off by looking carefully at the close calls and providing briefings and trainings on them.”

This means you’ll need to have a close call system set up where crew members can report an incident to a supervisor. They should have the option to do this anonymously in case they don’t want to stand out among their fellow crew members.

While there does need to be an anonymous part to it, Steel says the close call system also needs to be formalized. The crew supervisor should have safety incident forms that workers can fill out, which are then turned into the safety director, the safety committee and management.

Respond to close call incidents quickly. Don’t put them on a list to be reconsidered next month to see if they’re still happening. The next time the same incident happens, it may be more tragic. By taking close calls and making them part of policies and safety training, Steel says “you’re going to save yourself a lot of money and heartache in the long run.”

Helping you be a safe company



Wouldn’t it be great if someone went step by step with you on how to be a safe company? Well, you’re in luck. The National Association of Landscape Professionals, Fairfax, Virginia, offers its Safe Company Program to help you build a stronger safety culture that can help you reduce injuries and hazards, demonstrate your commitment to a safe workplace and lower your costs.



As a Safe Company participant, you’ll:

  • follow the guidelines in the NALP Safe Company Program manual.
  • establish an active safety committee within your company and conduct regular training.
  • document, measure and investigate every accident.
  • comply with OSHA posting requirements.
  • enter the NALP safety recognition awards every year.

For more information about the Safe Company Program and additional safety resources, visit www.landscapeprofessionals.org.


Make safety a part of culture

If you feel uncertain whether safety plays a big enough part of your company culture, Steel says there are four main things you can do to change this:

Follow specifically what OSHA instructs you to do. Become knowledgeable about all local, state and federal safety regulations so you can avoid problems if your company is inspected.

Develop a series of documented policies as part of your written safety program that are based on a hazard assessment.

Have a solid training program that’s based on the hazard assessment and policies you’ve created. This enforces the policies and deals with the potential hazards your workers are exposed to.

Evaluate whether the training you’re doing is effective. You can give employees a quick one- to two-minute pretest before a training session with just a few questions. Then you train them and give them the same test afterwards to see what they’ve learned. Another way to evaluate training is for you or the safety director to observe your crews on job sites following training. You can tell if your training was effective by seeing if workers are abiding by policies.

While safety can often be regarded as a wearisome topic you’re continually having to drill into your employees, it’s necessary to keep doing so.

Safety affects every single person who touches your business. Taking it seriously and making it a part of your company culture keeps you free from worry, expenses and heartache from frequent safety accidents.

Making safety a company priority allows your employees to come to work with peace of mind and confidence in management. It also keeps their families free from worry that they’ll be injured on the job. And it keeps clients happy knowing they’re working with a company with an excellent safety record that puts the health and well-being of its employees above the next guy.

As you continue to work to make safety a core part of your company culture, you can start now on implementing some of the changes above. Like the saying goes: “The best time to start was yesterday. The next best time is now.”

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.

Safety insights from the industry


“Our company has a safety committee made up of a mix of employees from foremen to managers to office staff to crew members. The committee meets regularly to discuss what topics need to be addressed with the rest of our employees. This diverse group we’ve developed within our company has really helped us have a successful and effective safety program.”

Joel Hafner, President, Fine Earth Landscape Inc., Poolesville, Maryland



“Our company has weekly safety discussions that are led by all employees on a rotating schedule. As a result, everyone seems to be more engaged knowing that they will each eventually be leading that discussion. We also stress teamwork and cross training. Every employee has the absolute authority to stop work on any project if they have any safety concern.”

John Stropko, Owner, New Desert Gallery Inc., Tucson, Arizona



“Safety is not negotiable for our team and we have no tolerance for risk. There is no acceptable circumstance for unsafe behaviors. If someone is cited doing an unsafe behavior, they are written up or sent home. If an employee has a near-miss, we assess the situation and determine how we can continue to prevent issues in the future.”

Terra Phelps, Handler/Owner, Utopian Landscapes LLC, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania