May 28 2020 06:00 AM

Build a strong power equipment safety program to protect both operators and profits.

Photo: GTI

Power equipment is a big investment, and just about every owner knows that proper maintenance and operation will extend its life and use. The same goes for the people who operate it! Teaching employees how to fill up, start up, rev up and put up in a safe manner will keep them productive and your profits growing.

Creating a culture of safety in your operation is not only altruistic, but it can drastically affect your bottom line as well. We all know that workers’ compensation insurance can be one of the largest and most annoying monthly expenses. Even a minor accident can send rates skyrocketing.

Safety training should give your employees a chance to pause, absorb and appreciate the work they do. Training conducted with a positive attitude and enthusiasm can make sessions something the workers actually look forward to.

“We brew a big pot of coffee and supply all the doughnuts they can eat,” says Jeff Bowen, owner of Images of Green in Stuart, Florida. With 37 employees and almost 20 years in the industry, Images of Green is a full-service landscape contractor, offering installation, maintenance, irrigation and tree care. The company holds safety training sessions twice per month. Because the employees are able to sit down, eat a snack and still get paid, they’re more eager to participate in the safety exercises.

Photo: Images of Green

In San Antonio, Texas, Shawn Salazar, owner of Heritage Lawn and Landscape Management, conducts training once a month. “We are a family-owned business,” says Salazar. “We have a small number of workers who work closely together every day.” Building the team to work together in a cohesive unit makes the training stick. In addition, supervisors can keep an eye out to be sure that workers understand and comply with all safety requirements.

“Most of our formal training sessions happen in our office,” Salazar says. “Of course, we also conduct on-the-job training in the field.”

Luis Fajardo is responsible for overseeing training for more than 500 employees at GTI, based in Las Vegas. The full-service company provides landscape construction and maintenance, with some of the largest commercial and homeowner association clients in Clark County. With such a large staff, training needs to be formal and accountable. Written lessons and presentations are held in classrooms, but there is still plenty of hands-on training outdoors.

“Our construction equipment operators are trained by our in-house safety manager, Luis,” says Shirl McMayon, sales and business development manager. “To get his operator card, the safety manager spends time with the operator going over the manufacturer manual safety precautions as well as the GTI internal safety manual precautions. Then the safety manager observes the new operator using the machine.” Operators are given a card with a checklist on each piece of equipment. When an employee fills the card, they are considered a GTI-
certified operator.

Bowen has a similar system. “When we hire a new employee, they get a baseline document that has about 30 line items on it with various skills,” says Bowen. “We empower our supervisors to be mentors, so after 30 days, the items are reviewed. Safety is a priority when it comes to equipment use, and the item won’t be checked until the supervisor is satisfied that the employee is operating everything correctly.”

Gathering materials

Though it’s already integrated as a part of the company’s standard employee development procedures, much of Bowen’s documentation is also required for insurance coverage. “Our training is mandated by our insurance carrier. We get audited every six months,” Bowen says. “We have a big notebook of topics, and the supervisors can pick what they want to cover. We get most of our training materials from three places: our insurance carrier, the National Association of Landscape Professionals and Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association.”

Bowen is especially appreciative of the educational materials he receives from industry associations. “They are specific to our region and totally related to what we do,” he says. “And our insurance carrier has a portal online that has general topics galore.”

Photo: GTI

Training sessions typically cover two topics. There is always a safety topic to start, then a second topic covering technical issues such as fertilization, pruning, pest management and other practical subjects. “Everybody has to sign off at the end. The sign-in sheets are all collected and submitted at the insurance audit,” Bowen explains.

Salazar has incorporated training manuals and guidance that come directly from equipment manufacturers. “Some of our training materials come from the manufacturer’s literature,” he says. “But we have developed our own programs as well.”

In addition, Salazar also has manufacturers’ representatives providing additional expertise. “We have a rep from the company come out to train and demonstrate their products at our job sites,” he says. This is especially valuable with new equipment, products or techniques, giving employees the chance to get direct feedback from the representative on best practices.

GTI has also used guest speakers to spark attention and excitement. “We’ve had expert arborists come and train crews on pruning and chain saw safety,” McMayon says.

Bowen doesn’t hesitate to repeat topics if necessary. “We’ve had employees for five, 10 or 15 years and there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “We have a long page of topics and a big fat binder full of handouts and other information: equipment, PPEs, health-related issues. We do not repeat any topics for at least six months, though.”

Using power equipment safely is a key topic with all companies, as well as basic safety issues. “We talk about how to maintain and repair the equipment we use on a daily basis,” says Salazar. “We also talk about how to properly lift heavy items or how to properly shovel without hurting your back,” Salazar says.

“Ladder safety, preventing slips and falls — all the basics need occasional reviewing,” Bowen says.

Keeping employees covered

All three companies also stress heat and sun protection for employees. “We go over the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, as well as ways to protect yourself from the sun,” says Salazar.

As a skin cancer survivor, McMayon knows the importance of sun protection, even in the desert heat. GTI workers get long sleeves, jackets, hats and whatever they need to keep their skin protected.

Personal protective equipment has been a part of the landscape toolbox for decades. Gloves and hearing and eye protection are a must when using all equipment, with some equipment requiring even more gear, such as chaps for operators using chain saws.

“We are all issued safety glasses, work gloves and any other safety equipment we need per the job we are performing,” says Salazar. “Since we work closely together, supervisors make sure that proper safety gear is being worn.”

“We issue our employees company hats and tinted safety glasses. Everyone in Florida wears hats and sunglasses, so that’s a given and no problem,” says Bowen. “We also issue gloves. If anything wears out, they can just exchange them for new ones.”

Getting employees to use proper PPE can be tough when weather conditions make them uncomfortable. But it takes diligence from supervisors to make sure operators are working safely. “In Florida, it’s too hot to wear earmuffs, so we issue ear plugs on a daily basis,” says Bowen. “It can be a challenge for supervisors to be sure that employees are wearing them, but we make sure they do. And for the most part, they are willing. They just might need a reminder once in a while.”

Even in the scorching heat of Las Vegas, GTI employees are required to wear safety gear at all times. Chaps, gloves, eye protection and hats keep workers sheltered from the sun as well as keeping them free from injury.

Photo: Images of Green

Emphasizing safe practices from the get-go creates a culture of safety that encourages employees to watch out for themselves and others, says Salazar. “We have fun working together every day, but we make sure we are safe doing our work. If one of us gets hurt, we all know we have to pick up the slack. That means more work for the rest of us. So we make sure we are always working safely.”

Crew supervisors carry a lot of the burden of making sure operators stick to safety guidelines, but that can also provide a professional growth experience. “We empower our supervisors to be trainers and mentors for our crews,” says Bowen.

Efficiency and performance are rewarded monthly with special pizza lunches for teams that make the mark. But Bowen notes that he rarely, if ever, needs to use warnings or other negative reinforcement to encourage safe practices.

While a safe, cohesive team makes for a positive work environment, safety training can also pay off in cold, hard cash. Insurance providers assign companies a modification factor as a credit or debit to your workers’ compensation premium based on your company’s actual losses compared to expected losses by industry type.

“Once you have a bad (modification factor), it lives with your payroll,” says Bowen. “If you only have a couple of employees, that might be OK. But with 37 employees, that can mean thousands of dollars a year.”

On the other hand, a positive modification factor can earn you a credit. “As long as we document our training and don’t make any claims, we get a dividend from our insurance carrier,” Bowen says. “It’s a percentage of our premium. Since we are renewing this May and we’re accident-free, unless something happens we’re looking at a nice dividend.”

To help keep his employees incentivized, Bowen installed a digital sign that automatically adds an “accident-free” day every 24 hours. “I haven’t been back there for a couple days, but last I looked it was 1,300-plus days. We also have a sign they pass when they go out the gate that says: Be Careful. Stay Safe. Just a reminder!”

Of course, there are the savings that come from avoiding lost work time due to employee injury. Plus, consider the monetary investment you have in your equipment. “One of our most important topics is truck and trailer safety and loading,” Bowen says. The company uses a dump truck that pulls a trailer loaded with equipment to each job.

“Nowadays, that dump can cost you $70,000,” Bowen says. “Add a trailer that will set you back about $20,000, and load that with your small equipment. You figure you’ve got $100,000 rolling down the road.”

Safety training not only saves time and money, it also creates an atmosphere of caring and compassion that creates a workforce that is cohesive, loyal and ready to meet the challenges your business faces each day.

Helen Stone is a freelance writer based in northern California covering the green industry for more than two decades.