A landscape contractor was on a ladder trimming trees at a residential care home for the elderly when he lost his footing and fell six feet to the ground. The body of the man, who had been working alone at the time, was discovered the next morning after customers noticed his truck still parked nearby. Evidence at the scene suggested that he died from a neck injury as a result of the fall.
In another incident, a campus arborist was hospitalized with a concussion and other injuries after falling 20 feet through the skylight of a building while trying to remove a tree that had fallen against the structure. Authorities said that the arborist had been through fall protection training and was using the proper safety equipment. Because of the concussion, he could not remember the events leading up to the fall.
These two incidents are among the many fall-related injuries and deaths that occur within our industry each year. From 1992-2007, some 1,285 workers died while performing various tree care and maintenance tasks. And 441 of those deaths were the result of falls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (April 24, 2009).
Statistics compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that 176 workers in the landscape services industry died from falls to lower levels from 2003-2006. According to a NIOSH fact sheet entitled “Fatal Injuries Among Landscape Services Workers,” landscape services workers are more likely to die as a result of falls to a lower level (22% of the fatalities from 2003-2006) than U.S. workers overall (12% of the fatalities during that same period).
NOTE: This free fact sheet, NIOSH Publication No. 2008-144, can be downloaded in English from www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2008-144/pdfs/2008-144.pdf and in Spanish from www.cdc.gov/spanish/niosh/topics/jardineria.html.
NIOSH, which makes use of public data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, also notes that the rate of non-fatal injuries due to falls to a lower level is greater among landscape services workers (13.1 per 1,000 full-time employees from 2003-2006) than among U.S. workers overall (8.8 per 1,000 full-time employees). “Landscape services” workers perform such tasks as landscape and irrigation installation, lawn care, tree removal, general landscape maintenance and snow removal.
David Snodgrass, president of Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping in Portland, OR, says there are many hazards workers in our industry face that can result in falls. “Our jobsites are on uneven ground,” he points out. “Our crews are digging holes and coming across hoses, other obstacles and rough grade. If you’re operating in a wet climate, the soil may be slippery where you’re digging. If someone isn’t paying attention, there is the risk of getting hurt.”
Falls to lower levels can be even more hazardous than falls on the same level, Snodgrass notes. “We operate a lot of equipment that crews need to climb into. It’s often metal, and they may have muddy boots and are climbing onto wet, slippery surfaces. Just getting into a piece of equipment and climbing out can be dangerous.”
Other common ways falls occur within our industry include:
• Jumping on and off trucks or trailers
• Climbing up and down ladders and working from ladders
• Performing tree care work (climbing the trees or working from ladders or aerial lifts)
• Stringing holiday lights on tall trees, buildings or other high places
• Installing and maintaining green roofs
“The construction of green roofs is now becoming very mainstream in the landscape industry,” Snodgrass says. “It has really become a mainstay for new construction. So all of a sudden we’re working with cranes. We’re up there on the roof bringing in soil, putting in irrigation, and planting and maintaining the rooftop.”
Laurie Erdman, safety manager at The Bruce Co. of Wisconsin in Middleton, WI, says it’s also not uncommon to have flower beds on the balconies of buildings or plants at the top of high walls. “For example,” she says, “we maintain flower beds along the parking lot near a shopping center. There is a big wall 20 to 30 feet tall. The beds are at the top of that wall. If you are working at the leading edge of a boulder wall, you should be using fall protection.”
Despite the hazards, it can be difficult to get crew members—who are typically in a rush to get the job done—to use fall protection equipment or take other measures to reduce their risk of a fall.
“I try to get our salespeople who are selling the job to calculate in whether there will be additional costs for purchasing equipment or for providing specialized training,” Erdman says. “If you have issues with heights and leading edges, you have to build the costs into the job upfront because it can take extra time to complete the job. For example, if you’re working from a parking lot, anchor points are sometimes very difficult to find and can take extra time.”
Erdman adds that it’s often tough to get middle managers to understand that fall protection equipment isn’t something you just grab without having had the proper training. “They (crew members) need to know how to use it properly. Now we have it under lock and key, and they must check it out. This also helps so we’re not losing pieces of it.”
Conduct a jobsite hazard assessment before your project begins and at the start of each workday. “When doing a site inspection, walk the project before you start work. Look at all of the safety issues. Then make allowances to talk about those. The supervisor and the foreman should do this,” Snodgrass says. NOTE: Be sure to identify all potential tripping and fall hazards.
Have a written safety program in place that includes training in fall prevention and fall protection. The article in the April 24, 2009 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report noted that in 70% of 45 fatality investigations completed from 1985-2007, safety training consisted of only informal or on-the-job training. In 75% of the incidents, the employer did not have written safety policies and procedures in place. “Every day you’re on a job, you should have a pre-workday meeting,” Snodgrass suggests. “Remind your crews about that site. Make sure they’re paying attention. People need a daily reminder of what’s really important.”
Become familiar with all of the applicable OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations. Remember that landscape contractors are subject to both OSHA’s general industry standards and its construction standards. (See the accompanying sidebar, “Fall Protection Resources,” for information on linking to OSHA’s standards and to other free resources.)
Inspect fall protection and other safety equipment before each use. Look for any defects. Keep a written record of problems and never allow crew members to use defective equipment.
Train your crew members in ladder safety. This includes the importance of securing and stabilizing ladders before climbing them. NOTE: As in the case of all training, make sure it is conducted in a language and manner your workers understand.
Know that crew members who only periodically work from heights need to be retrained each time. This is important, for example, for workers who may not have worked on an aerial lift stringing holiday decorations since the previous year. The use of checklists is a good way to reinforce training.
Prohibit employees from jumping on and off trucks and other equipment. Train them to maintain three points of contact when climbing onto ladders and equipment.
Share fall-related incidents with all employees. “Whenever we have an incident, we have it written up, talked about and shared. Every one of our employees’ falls will be printed in our newsletter every month. We print the name of the person involved, what happened and the cost involved. We’re a company where everybody can make a mistake and it is fine—we learn from them—so we’re trying this,” Snodgrass says. PRO
Barbara Mulhern is a Wisconsin-based writer who specializes in safety and health issues for green industry employers.