April 23 2021 06:00 AM

Develop a culture of safety with continuing education for crews.

As a landscape and irrigation business owner or manager, the fear of someone getting injured on the job is regularly on your mind. After all, the very nature of landscaping work can be inherently dangerous. Your crews are working out in the field where factors are out of your control. Fortunately, there are ways that you can reduce your risk. By implementing a solid safety program, you can feel confident that your crews are well-trained and preventing accidents.

Employers are responsible for providing their employees with a workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards, says Kimberly Darby, spokesperson with U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Employers must provide landscape workers with training on, and personal protection equipment for, all machinery that workers are required to operate,” she says. “OSHA requires that employers conduct all required training of workers in a language and vocabulary workers can understand.”

It can be incredibly beneficial for landscape companies to send at least one employee through some form of OSHA training. At TruNorth Landscaping in Traverse City, Michigan, the company’s human resources manager took a 10-hour OSHA Construction Safety Course, earning a certificate of completion. When onboarding a new employee at TruNorth Landscaping, safety training is an immediate part of that process.

“It helps that our human resources manager has that background and knows what all of the safety standards are,” says Heather Kortokrax, TruNorth Landscaping director of marketing. “You don’t want there to be any corners cut when it comes to safety.”

Kortokrax says that this year the company has appointed one person to oversee safety. His official title is materials and equipment superintendent, but a big portion of what he’ll be doing is “bootson-the ground type of work, checking for safety on every site.”

“This will essentially follow through on what our HR manager is teaching by making sure that the crews are actually putting safe practices into use,” Kortokrax explains.

Landscape America in Wrentham, Massachusetts, is also ramping up its focus on safety. Company President Doug McDuff says that a few workers’ compensation claims and the financial ramifications of those claims were eye-opening that there needed to be more emphasis on safe operations.

“Nobody was seriously injured, and we had already thought we were pretty safe, but it’s made us put even more energy into how we can better train crews on safety,” he says. “Even small accidents can add up and start to affect the bottom line. What we’ve found is that safety has to start with ownership and work its way down. We have always talked a lot about safety, but we’ve found we need to be sure that we’re living it, that our managers are out there and demonstrating best practices and wearing safety gear. And that they’re not afraid to stop a crew member in the middle of what they’re doing and say, ‘Let’s talk about whether there’s a safer way to do this,’ if they’re not using best practices.”

Fostering a culture of safety

Exactly what safety training looks like can vary from company to company, but those who seem to be most successful are the companies that are fostering a culture of safety, where it’s not a one-anddone undertaking but rather an ongoing, evolving one. Along with that, it’s proven important to have some formal structure or programming in place as this creates accountability.

“Employers should have some form of a safety training program at their work sites,” says OSHA’s Darby. “Many OSHA standards require training, and the agency has a number of resources to help employers develop safety training programs that are unique to their workplaces.”

For North Point Outdoors in Derry, New Hampshire, a formal safety program has been built in the form of what they call “North Point Outdoors University,” according to Co-owner Andrew Pelkey.

“It’s the idea that we not only want our team to know how to use equipment, like a backpack blower, but we want them to understand all of the nuances that go into best practices, like working with a crew on corners,” he says. “We’re shooting that video to incorporate into our University.”

Pelkey says that ongoing refresher training and videos will be an integral part of operations. When it’s been a whole year since crews performed a certain task, a refresher can be invaluable.

Beyond formal programming, all of the landscaping companies we spoke with expressed the importance of bringing up safety in daily and ongoing reminders. Often, these quick safety talks are part of the morning daily huddles or brought up in the field. These ongoing reminders help to foster the culture of safety that companies are striving for, where it’s just part of everyday work life.

Kortokrax says it’s about meeting crews where they’re at.

“There’s a place for PowerPoint presentations and videos, but there has to be at least some handson component, too,” she says. “That’s how a lot of people learn. So, the fact that our materials and equipment superintendent is out there in the field and teaching in a hands-on way backs up the concepts that we might have talked about in a safety meeting, and sometimes that’s more effective.”

Pelkey says that safety refreshers are part of the 10-minute morning huddle and they often use reallife situations. For instance, when another landscape company’s trailer was hit while parked in the road, it presented an opportunity to talk about what could have been done differently, such as using cones to mark it off.

McDuff agrees that real-life situations hit home. That’s why they ask their team to talk about mistakes, not to interrogate them, but to learn from them.

“If there was a close call, we want to talk about it and think about what we could do to improve so that next time it’s not an actual accident,” he says.

Heat, pest and plant safety

While it’s easy to think of landscape safety in terms of equipment operation and driving, landscape crews are exposed to other dangers in the field including heat, pests and poisonous plants. The landscaping companies that we spoke with stressed the importance of reminders and safe practices in these areas as well.

“For us in the Northeast, tick bites are a huge deal,” says McDuff. “We have lost working days due to tick bites and Lyme disease. Every year, as we come into tick season, we have ongoing conversations about proper dress and safety to avoid bites. The same is true for poison ivy. We’re talking about how to properly identify it so that crews can avoid it.”

Kortokrax says taking the message directly to the field can help, particularly with sun safety.

“On the hottest days, myself and the HR manager will deliver Gatorades to all of the sites and strictly enforce that 30-minute lunch break so that crews are resting. With heat safety, it’s often reminders that make a big difference.”

Allowing safety to evolve

Tackling safety can feel like an overwhelming endeavor, but fortunately there are lots of helpful resources available. Darby says that OSHA has several resources available to assist employers in the landscaping industry with fulfilling their responsibilities under the OSH Act. The agency’s Landscaping and Horticultural Services webpage includes information on standards, hazards and solutions, as well as plenty of additional resources.

OSHA also offers an On-Site Consultation Program with free, confidential occupational safety and health advice for small- and medium-sized businesses. These services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the effort that you put in. McDuff advises landscape business owners to remember that as you grow, your safety needs can evolve and change, and you must keep up.

“If you fail to allow your safety training and programming to grow with you, then you risk property getting damaged or even worse, someone getting hurt,” he says. “You must remember that as you grow, things change and you need to adapt.”

Lindsey Getz is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at lindsey.getz@yahoo.com.