Avoiding close calls

Keeping your team safe should be front of mind.

Talking about safety shouldn’t stop after onboarding. Continuous training and education can keep major accidents from happening in the field.
Photo courtesy of DeSantis Landscapes
DeSantis Landscapes’ residential enhancement manager, Carlos Serrano, passes on knowledge about safety as he trains the next generation of landscapers.
Photo courtesy of DeSantis Landscapes

When it comes to landscaper safety in the field, nobody’s truly seen it all.

Timothy Trimmer knows this — it’s one thought that keeps him up at night. His worst fear is that he’d have to go to an employee’s family and say, “I’m so sorry, but your loved one is dead.”

“That absolutely terrifies me,” says Trimmer, the president of Professional Grounds in Northern Virginia. “We try to let our crews know how many things can go wrong every single day.”

And there’s no shortage of things that can go wrong: Trimmer recently heard of a landscaper who didn’t see an irrigation flag on the property he was weeding. The weedwhacker hit the flag with so much force that it flew up and went through the bridge of the employee’s nose. Plus, some Virginia-based landscapers recently had their truck on train tracks long enough for a train to strike their vehicle, which was ultimately a deadly oversight.

It may seem alarmist, but Trimmer is one of three executives we interviewed who believe no safety concerns are too trivial. All three companies recently earned National Association of Landscape Professionals safety awards.

“I honestly think if I feel (this concern), and I truly do, it travels down to the crew members that we not only want them to be safe, but we truly care about them,” Trimmer says.

Speaking freely

Establishing a more deliberate, safety-oriented culture at DeSantis Landscapes started five years ago, when executives noticed a rash of accidents within the organization. They’d always run weekly safety meetings as most companies do.

But Bryan Gyllen, the vice president of operations, says they needed a more coordinated safety effort across their four locations. The meetings now consist of reviewing a fundamental safety element and what it means to them, then employees do some stretching.

But the real change in safety culture at DeSantis came when executives let employees speak their minds freely. Now they address what they call “close calls” and “direct hits.”

“We try to create an environment in those safety meetings where they can talk about accidents that happened or nearly happened in a consequence-free environment,” Gyllen says. “We want to figure out the root cause and how we might prevent it moving forward.”

Employees were a little skeptical at first, unsure if they’d be punished by speaking up about their mistakes. But once they felt comfortable sharing their honest mistakes, Gyllen says it seems like employees — even the new ones — are noticing that they’re not alone. And by sharing this pertinent information, others can avoid repeating the same mistakes.

“(Safety) is the most important part of our business. We want to make sure our employees are showing up and going home with all their digits,” Gyllen says. “I think there’s a balance there that companies need to take where they make it possible that people want to talk about accidents when they happen.”

Photo courtesy of DeSantis Landscapes

Group up

Greenleaf Landscapes in Athens, Ohio, just celebrated 1.6 million hours without a recorded injury. General Manager Dave Fleming says that 20 years ago, the company really committed to stricter safety policies because they needed to prove they’d meet industry standards to bid on larger commercial work.

“It was partially sales-driven, but it also wasn’t because we knew anything catastrophic can occur,” Fleming says. “With the amount of wheels on the ground, it was necessary and a commitment we needed to make.”

Fleming’s team has a safety committee that meets bimonthly to bring up issues ranging from equipment that needs to be replaced to procedures that may need to be tweaked. This is already in addition to in-house biweekly “toolbox trainings” that cover anything like proper PPE, first aid and how to safely use chainsaws, plus a monthly training conducted by an outside safety company.

Greenleaf’s not the only team that meets this regularly — in fact, all three companies have consistent safety meetings planned. DeSantis, which hovers around 150 employees, has deliberately planned education by using a master spreadsheet to track the topics they’ve covered. They do weekly safety meetings and a quarterly check-in with production managers to see how that education is going.

“Different people are presenting each week, and sometimes it’s an all-branch meeting, sometimes it’s divisional topics,” Gyllen says. “It does take a lot of coordination.”

Fleming adds that the reason for so many meetings to cover safety is that landscaping work can become tedious. Laborers in the field might be doing the same process each day, so constantly keeping that safety awareness front of mind is vital. He’s noticed getting people to wear hearing and eye protection can be tricky because some employees feel they’re experienced enough with the equipment that they don’t need it.

“People become very complacent, doing the same thing the same way all the time,” Fleming says. “That’s why we even have safety banners and posters around our facility, putting that in front of them at all times. You want to come home the same way you came in.”

Photo courtesy of Professional Grounds

Starting strong

While some seasoned employees may start to lax on their safety training, many new employees at most companies have never even touched the equipment they’re out in the field using.

Gyllen says that’s why it’s so important to focus on the novices.

“It’s certainly true in our company,” Gyllen says, “that new employees are the ones likely to get hurt.”

At DeSantis, they’ve restructured their safety program so that onboarding is deliberately safety focused. This means employees not familiar with standard operating procedures are getting that one-on-one time with some of the more seasoned employees.

Last year at Professional Grounds, Trimmer even hired a director of training to assist the onboarding process. He says it’s too early to tell how much it has helped, but his gut feeling is that it’s improved company culture, understanding of safety protocols and even retention.

“We have an employee who has an awesome attitude, who bleeds our colors, orange and green,” Trimmer says. “He spends a full two days with (new employees).”

The director of training walks alongside them on jobsites and shows them how to use equipment, plus shows them the intricacies of each property like boundary markers. He drives in the vehicle with them and walks through proper safe driving procedures and even has lunch with them to talk them through what the company is like.

To continue that education, the employee also drives out to all the branches each week and leads a weekly training session that always has a safety component. Trimmer says nobody is done learning even after they’ve been onboarded.

“We want to make a big deal about it. We communicate, no matter how uncomfortable it is, at the morning huddles,” Trimmer says. “The more conversation people hear about accidents or safety, I think the better.”

Discuss and award

One way to encourage that conversation is to ensure employees feel like they won’t be unfairly punished for mistakes. Gyllen says that his team understands mistakes happen, and though employees will always have to come in to talk about accidents in the field, it’s rare they escalate to harsh punishment.

“I can’t speak for every interaction that happens in the company, but I think our managers want to learn from what happens, really getting to the root cause. There isn’t an accident out there that isn’t avoidable,” Gyllen says. “We’re trying to obtain the truth of what happened and disarm people where they feel like they can be candid with us. The more we can learn, the better. We can’t do that without getting good data from the field.”

Fleming adds that at Greenleaf, an employee handbook and safety guide outlines the various ways an employee can be written up or can receive a verbal warning for a safety violation. But those writeups never go without conversation with management. Trimmer’s policy is similar: Mistakes are documented with HR and they have a conversation about what happened. He adds that he mandates drug testing for his employees after any reported incident.

Trimmer also recalls having an employee lie to him last year about a vehicle accident — he claimed he had been rear ended by another driver, while that driver’s dashboard camera verified that he had actually backed into her.

“It’s hard to have a policy that has no flexibility to it,” Trimmer says. “In that case, we fired him less because of the accident but more because he didn’t meet our core values.”

So, creating a place where employees feel they can be honest is important. But all three managers agree that incentivizing good safety practices is great for the team. Fleming says his team has done cash awards before, and at an upcoming full-team company meeting, they’ll make a big deal about their streak of accident-free hours.

“Everybody that day at the company will receive a new pair of safety glasses and gloves,” Gyllen says.

Trimmer says he offers a safe driving bonus that he’s found effective, where after a year of accident-free driving, an employee receives a bonus of $50. It keeps going up annually but maxes out at $350. If they have an accident, the bonus pay resets and a year of safe driving results in $50.

He says it’s important that this is a rewards-based system, not one that punishes employees. Trimmer says he’s not having those employees pay deductibles and mistakes don’t come directly out of their pay, because to some, those wages might be putting food on the table. But the incentive is still there to practice good safety habits, which is all Trimmer wants in the end.

“It’s a million different things that can happen that can derail someone’s life every single day,” he says. “Are we setting them up to succeed or fail?”

The author is associate editor with Lawn & Landscape.

Read Next

Patio plus

March 2023
Explore the March 2023 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.

Share This Content