Stressing safety during stressful times

Features - Safety

Landscape companies are making sure safety sticks long after an employee’s initial orientation.

August 24, 2022

Photo illustration © Lemonsoup14 | Adobe Stock

Today’s increasingly hectic environment has placed unprecedented strains on landscape companies. At a time when it might be easy to allow haste to make waste, it’s important for landscaping professionals to remember that safety always comes first.

“For our company, safety is an everyday discussion,” says Tim Worrell, owner of Beechwood Landscape Architecture & Construction, which employs between 25-30 people, in Southampton, N.J. “One thing I’ve learned is that you have to be repetitive to the guys in the field. You have to talk about the job, but you also have to talk about safety in that same meeting every single morning. You can’t just have a big group meeting every couple of months because nobody will listen. You need consistency and repetition.”

It also helps to have respected leaders that other employees look up to. Employee turnover has plagued the landscaping industry for many years. The key for successful companies has been having the ability to maintain a core group of talent that is able to lead the entire organization in the right direction.

“We’ve been looking to hire more local labor over the past couple of years, but the labor pool just isn’t that great right now,” says Will Schoggen, co-owner and president of SchoggenScapes, a company that employs more than 20 people in Clinton, Miss. “Fortunately, I have foremen who’ve been here for five or six years now.”

The Yard Barbours, which employs 11, in Elizabethtown, Ind., has been in the same boat. “Amazingly, we have a core group that has been with us for years, and they have turned out to be great teachers for us,” says Tim Barbour, shop manager. “If an employee ever fails to wear certain PPE (personal protective equipment), we typically hear about it from the others on the crew. They know our customers are watching so we have to stay on top of it.”

A push from your safety partners

When it comes to improving safety, landscape companies can sometimes take advantage of encouragement from a key client.

“One of our commercial clients came to us to have a conversation specifically about safety,” Barbour says. “We learned to focus on more than just safety in general, that 30-foot safety zone. We also learned a lot about safety equipment. The client said it would require us to wear hardhats in addition to the gloves, hearing protection and eye protection we also require.”

That client also required other safety-related habits from The Yard Barbours. For instance, parked trucks and trailers needed safety cones and wheel chocks. “These are the extra safety measures the client expects to see when they pull up and see us on a jobsite,” Barbour says. “These requirements have also gotten our employees in the habit of wearing their safety gear and just thinking more about safety in general.”

Partners can also assist with training. Beechwood Landscape works closely with its workers’ comp insurance carrier. “Our carrier provides us with a lot of learning materials to help with our toolbox talks we have every two weeks,” Worrell says. “I also have regular meetings with our insurance carrier to go over our safety efforts and look for ways to improve.”

At Beechwood Landscape, safety has also become an integral part of jobsite planning. “When we handle our crews’ paperwork, we talk about specifics of the job and what to look out for from a safety standpoint,” Worrell says. “When we visit a jobsite, we check for safety wear. We also have our workers’ comp carrier visit our sites to see how our crews are working. He points out things he sees that could be done better and safer.”

North Point Outdoors, which has 75 employees, in Derry, N.H., has ramped up its safety efforts over the past five years or so. The company has become part of a self-insured workers’ comp group with roughly 30 other companies, a couple of which are landscaping companies. Inclusion in a group like this is rare for a landscape company due to the “higher risk” nature of the landscaping profession.

“Being part of a group like this forces you to continue promoting and providing for a safety-minded culture,” says Andrew Pelkey, co-owner and chief operating officer of North Point Outdoors. “When you have an incident, you have to answer to the other companies in the group. So, our company will go over any incidents in our monthly meetings, covering why something happened and what we can do to prevent it.”

Setting the tone

Prevention starts with the way new hires are onboarded.

“Our new hires go through a half day of orientation,” Schoggen says. “They watch safety videos on the different types of equipment we use. Each training section includes a test at the end. Then we go into the back of our yard to show them how to actually use the equipment.”

Schoggen got his training videos from the National Association of Landscape Professionals. As for the hands-on training, Schoggen’s account manager takes the lead.

“After a new hire completes their training and is put on a crew, we make sure the crew foreman knows where the skill level is,” Schoggen says. “Some employees might be good workers but still need a closer eye for a while. Some of our H-2B guys who have been with us a while actually help our foremen with training and coaching on the jobsites.”

Prior to joining the self-insured workers’ comp group, Pelkey says most of the safety incidents at North Point Outdoors were happening within the first few weeks of a person’s employment. In response to that trend, the company created NPO University. At the core of this safety curriculum are training modules from a provider of online training for landscaping companies.

“A new hire always starts off on a Wednesday with a full orientation presentation from our trainer,” Pelkey says. Next, the employee dives into the general training modules as well as modules that are specific to their job.

“Once they pass those, they head out into the yard for hands-on training and evaluation,” he says. “Each new employee has to be checked-off on both the written and hands-on training.”

After a weekend break, the new hire returns on Monday morning to attend the weekly company meeting. This meeting includes a safety talk from North Point’s safety coordinator. Then the new employee heads into the field with a crew. “We make sure every new hire works closely with a foreman-level employee for a week or so before joining the actual crew they are going to be working on,” Pelkey says.

The proper marking of parked trucks and trailers is one area of jobsite safety that many landscape crews neglect, but not at North Point Outdoors.
Photo courtesy of North Point Outdoors

Help ensure compliance

Maintaining the safety culture well beyond orientation requires another level of commitment. North Point Outdoors, for example, has created an official safety manual. The company’s mission statement is also geared toward safety.

“I think that’s really important,” Pelkey says. “Our people have to know that they are here to do the work, but also do it safely. We will never compromise their health or wellbeing just to get something done.”

“We have introduced something we call ‘common sense safety,’” says Everett Stewart, owner of Cornerstone Landscape, which employs 16 in Belmont, Ohio. “Even though we are very safe with how we operate equipment, we always talk about the little things that can happen — especially if you let yourself become lax.”

Stewart says equipment transport is one area he implores his crews to never become lax in. “This can really get a landscaping company into trouble,” Stewart says. “Especially at the end of the day, you have to be careful to make sure machines are tied down correctly. At our company, this responsibility doesn’t just fall on one person. The entire crew is responsible and held accountable.”

Employees are also held accountable for how they operate equipment.

“The speed of equipment is something we really focus on,” Stewart says. “A lot of people think that the faster you run equipment, the faster you can get the job done. But in reality, the faster you run equipment, the faster you can get yourself into trouble. We train our employees to slow down. Yes, they are at a slower pace, but they are also at a safer pace. They end up doing a much more proficient job.”

Regularly occurring safety meetings present an opportunity to reinforce safety-related policies and enhance safety knowledge. At SchoggenScapes, company-wide safety meetings take place every Tuesday morning. General topics apply to both construction and maintenance crews, such as cut hazards, trips and falls and ladder safety.

“We’ll also use our weekly meetings to talk about any recent near misses,” Schoggen says. “We never call anybody out though. We just take the opportunity to acknowledge an incident and try to learn from it. These meetings are led by our account manager and operations manager.”

Random jobsite inspections can further help ensure compliance. Since North Point Outdoors is part of that self-insured workers’ comp group, the group randomly dispatches an OSHA-trained inspector to one of North Point’s jobsites.

After assessing the jobsite, the inspector shares low, medium and high-level hazards. “We internalize those reports and work on any problems that might need to be fixed,” Pelkey says.

According to Pelkey, establishing a safety culture requires a top-down approach.

“Even in the busy season, our managers know that if we can’t do it safely, we won’t do it,” Pelkey says. “Sometimes you have to pause a second to think about a better, safer way to do something. It is in those times of haste where decisions really matter. If leaders fail to prioritize safety over productivity, you can never expect your employees to consistently prioritize safety.”

Holding people accountable is vital. North Point Outdoors has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol. And when it comes to everyday safety infractions, clear policies help with policing.

“We’ll issue a couple of verbal warnings,” Pelkey says. But if a bigger trend emerges, formal disciplinary documents are recorded in an employee’s personnel file. That can impact an individual’s ability to attain promotions and pay raises. Repeat offenders could face further action including non-paid time off or, eventually, termination. “However, because of the culture we’ve been able to breed, we don’t tend to see it get to this point,” Pelkey adds.

At North Point Outdoors, new employees must complete a thorough safety orientation period that includes both written and hands-on tests. Since instituting this program, incidents during an employee’s first several weeks on the job have been drastically reduced.
Photo courtesy of North Point Outdoors

Safety during a pandemic.

Over the past couple of years, employee safety has taken on an entirely new facet. When the pandemic first hit, North Point Outdoors limited crews to one employee per truck; the others drove themselves directly to jobsites. The company also avoided group training, relying heavily on a closed Facebook group for disseminating safety information.

These days, North Point Outdoors continues to utilize its Facebook group as a supplement to in-person training. And with employees having had the opportunity to get vaccinated, daily operations have returned to some semblance of normal.

“If an employee exhibits any COVID symptoms, however, we do require them to get a test before returning to work,” Pelkey says. “We aren’t mandating vaccinations though. But if an employee wants to go and get a vaccination or booster, we make it easy for them to take time off to do that.”

Beechwood Landscape has taken it a step further. “We actually brought in some medical professionals to provide vaccinations right at our office,” Worrell says. “I had found that a lot of my employees weren’t really sure about how to get vaccinated on their own, so this seemed to make a lot of sense. It made it easy, and made both my employees and clients feel more comfortable. We didn’t mandate it, but 98% of our employees took advantage of it.”

When it comes to safety, employees will also take advantage of the training, tools and encouragement provided to them. Leaders just need to set the tone that safety always comes first, and a little repetition doesn’t hurt.

The author is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.