The safe side

Features - Safety

Safety and training case studies shared at GIE+EXPO highlight the importance of documenting policies and self-auditing in today’s stifling regulatory environment.

May 11, 2011
Kristen Hampshire

Accidents happen. And landscape companies pay handsomely for them by writing larger checks to insurance companies, managing the cost of workers’ compensation claims, dealing with lost time and suffering attrition when injured employees don’t return to the workplace.

Then, there’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is cracking down on known violators. “I promise you, this administration is very, very focused on enforcement,” says Chuck Stribling, OSHA federal-state coordinator based in Kentucky.

At GIE+EXPO 2010’s Safety and Training Roundtable, Stribling joined four industry leaders to discuss how to implement safety practices in the workplace.

“Safety can make you money – and it can save you money,” says Rick Cuddihe, president, Lafayette Consulting Co., Louisville, Ky., who moderated the forum. “We have an obligation as an industry to provide a safe workplace, and that can also provide savings for us.”

First thing’s first: A company needs a safety program that includes training for employees and documentation to protect the firm in case of an audit.

“If you have a safety program, that’s a starting point,” says Matt Bland, president, Bland Landscape Co., Apex, N.C. Safety is ingrained in the culture of this 34-year-old family business. “It’s a passion my dad had, and it’s a passion my brother and I have. The biggest thing is to start writing down and documenting programs so you have something to work from and something to improve.”

Here are some pointers from these panelists: Stribling, Bland, David Snodgrass, president, Dennis’ 7 Dees Landscaping and Garden Center, Portland, Ore., and Gary Clevenger, national director of construction for CNA Business Insurance.

Analyze your risk.

Employees are reminded of how vulnerable they can be to workplace injuries every morning at Dennis’ 7 Dees. For the last 19 years, every crewmember joins in morning stretching exercises that prevent back injuries. The ritual began when Snodgrass attended a seminar hosted by his insurance company for the forestry industry, which is known for dealing with back injuries.

At the time, it was an issue for Dennis’ 7 Dees, as well. “We wanted to do something about that,” Snodgrass says.

The stretching does more than strengthen the body and prepare workers for physically demanding work. “It gets the whole company together,” Snodgrass says. “We used to just get to work in the morning, then batch out. It also shows that we are willing to do something above and beyond – that safety is important.”

Snodgrass took a more specific look at safety several years ago by partnering with his insurance representative to analyze the company’s workplace injury statistics. He reviewed a recent report at the forum, showing graphs and numbers: the reality of when, why and how safety is compromised. The results were surprising in some instances. For example, Snodgrass figured that the riskiest months of the year would be winter, when slip-and-fall cases are more likely.

“But the reality is, the middle part of the season – June, July and August – during our peak months is when we have the most accidents,” Snodgrass says. The reason being, “you bring on new hires for the season, maybe it takes awhile to train them, your wheels are turning productivity-wise and you’re working full capacity during the middle of the season.”

This information helped Snodgrass plan early to pay attention to safety. “That way, we can lower that big incline in accidents,” he says.

Start safety early.

Most employees who get hurt suffer injuries during their first few months on the job, Clevenger says. “Length of service is a big key (with claims),” he says. “If you want to focus on one place with safety, focus there: new employees.”

The average cost of a claim the first three months an employee works at a business is $22,000. “That new employee is where it’s at,” Clevenger says. What are these workers hurting? Their fingers and toes – “the appendages.”

Orientation training is critical for establishing a culture of safety from the get-go. At Bland Landscaping, new employees go through a thorough review of safety policies, procedures, gear and expectations that takes about a day and a half.

“What we saw was that employees were not being trained properly and it was taking a toll on getting employees up to speed on equipment,” Bland says, noting that a safety and training manager facilitates this orientation so the process is centrally controlled and consistent. This was not necessarily the case when training was led by individual account managers and production managers.

Training is effective because employees also understand there are consequences for not following through with company safety policies. For one, safety vests are required to be worn on all job sites, at all times. Bland has a three-strike system for enforcing this rule. “First time you’re seen without a vest, you are sent home without pay,” he says.

“Second time, you are sent home three days without pay. Third time, you are done.”

This down-to-business method is more effective than writing up employees or verbal warnings, Bland says. “We used to be too lenient,” he says. “(We decided) if we were going to have policies, we explain why we have them – and we like to reward – but we enforce with an iron fist.”

Clevenger says fleet safety is another big issue in the construction field, including landscapers. “Rear-end accidents are pretty severe and the leader (in fleet incidents),” he says. “That speaks to in-cab behavior.

“How many people have a cell phone policy?” Clevenger asked attendees at the session. “Is it: Answer the phone if I call? Or, is it: You can’t use the phone while you’re driving? You have GPS, laptops, radios in your trucks. In-cab distraction is where (accidents) are coming from – and rushing to jobs.”

Truck cabs are cluttered and drivers take on too many tasks while driving. Pick-up trucks are responsible for more than 40 percent of those rear-end accidents, he says. Tools that help enforce vehicle safety include in-cab cameras that record employees while they drive.

Perform an audit.

Bland tells how an OSHA audit prompted his company to prioritize safety training and document procedures. An employee was caught not wearing a safety vest while working in a right-of-way.

“He was sitting on the vest on the seat of his lawnmower,” Bland says.

Then when OSHA officers inspected the company vehicle, they found other “little things” – violations that added up to a $24,000 fine. Bland had documentation of safety practices and negotiated the fine down to $6,000. That fee was later dropped to $2,000 after a meeting with the safety manger and a laborious OSHA review of the company’s safety processes.

“They were lenient that first go-around,” Bland says. “If we are caught with the same violations again – and these were not that serious – it can get very expensive and difficult for your insurance relationship. We said, instead of looking at this audit as adversarial, let’s talk about how we can fix these compliance issues.”

Not wearing the safety vest was the culprit of Bland Landscaping’s OSHA audit. Actually, Bland shares that OSHA officers were headed back from lunch and on their way to a large construction job to conduct an audit when they spotted this violation. So they took a detour by auditing Bland’s firm first.

The good news for Bland was that his processes were documented. The company has been conducting its own safety audits for about eight years. Those audits include in-facility and on-the-job inspections by a senior manager and the safety and training manager. “We evaluate the work process,” Bland explains. “Are all safety vests on? Is anyone operating equipment they are not certified to use?”

Stribling shares that companies don’t have to wait for the audit to learn what potential violations loom at their companies. OSHA’s “good guy” side is consultation services: a rich resource companies can tap into to learn what areas of their business need fine-tuning or a complete overhaul.

Each state OSHA department, and OSHA’s federal office, has a consolation services arm that focus on training and education. They perform free audits and provide resources to help businesses avoid an audit.

“There is a wall between the division of compliance and the division of education and training,” Stribling assures skeptics. “Consultation visits are not public record – by law, (others) cannot get a copy of that information.”

OSHA training and education consultants will perform a full audit or focus on areas of concern. Business owners can use this review as a platform for change. Rather than waiting to find out what “little things” could get identified in a true OSHA audit, the consultation red-flags issues in advance.

The time invested in a consultative audit could save companies thousands of dollars. Cuddihe shares that he knows two contractors who were fined $150,000 after OSHA inspections.“That’s the size of the fines we’re seeing now,” he says. “Can you imagine eating that as a business owner? And these weren’t large companies.”

Clevenger highlights the OSHA website as a valuable resource for companies. “The PowerPoints are understandable and you can use those for training,” he says. “Your tax dollars pay for it.”

In Bland’s case, documentation helped repeal some of the OSHA violations and reduce fines. But documentation also plays a key role in how the company enforces its safety policies and measures the success of their safety programs.

Cuddihe emphasizes how having “proof” of policies on paper is critical.

“If you do have an incident with an injury or an investigation, you can show that you have set plans in motion to prevent (accidents) from happening,” he says. “With documentation, your company will be way better off.”

The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.