5 Elements of a Successful Landscape Company Safety Program

Commitment, awareness, response, training and evaluation can help landscaping company owners make safety stick—all year long and at all levels of their organizations.

Employees usually respond better to interactive, hands-on training. If you're training on PPE, for example, you actually want the hearing protection, safety glasses, etc. there so you can demonstrate how and when to properly use them.
Employees usually respond better to interactive, hands-on training. If you're training on PPE, for example, you actually want the hearing protection, safety glasses, etc. there so you can demonstrate how and when to properly use them.

Landscaping is an inherently dangerous business. Mishaps will likely happen from time to time. Your job as company owner is to help create the conditions so that their frequency and severity are as minimal as possible. That requires the commitment to and establishment of a safety culture.

"The key is continuity," says Dr. Sam Steel, a senior research associate at Penn State University and safety adviser to PLANET. A safety management program cannot simply consist of early-season training courses for your field employees. Safety has to be a season-long focus, whether your season is eight months or 12.

Steel says that when it comes to safety, landscaping companies need to take an à la c.a.r.t.e approach.

C = Commitment

A commitment to safety is something you, the owner, and your management team have to take. "If safety is simply something you expect to see filter down through your crew-level managers, you won't be real successful with it," Steel says.

Let's say your safety training program is based on 15-minute tailgate meetings every Monday morning. The problem is that you're going to have varying levels of successes and failures because the quality of the training will likely vary from crew to crew. That's because most crew leaders don't have any real training in adult education. They don't know what to do to get employees to respond well to them.

"Most employees will not respond well to lecturing," Steel points out. "But they do respond well to something interactive or hands-on. So if you're training on personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, you actually want the hearing protection, safety glasses, etc. there so you can demonstrate how and when to properly use them."

To that end, someone in your company must lead the safety training effort. For larger companies, it might be possible to hire a dedicated safety and training director. For smaller companies, it might make more fiscal sense to designate a veteran crew leader as your safety lead. Then, the other crew leaders in your company can pull together to form a safety committee that takes its cues from and reports to the safety leader.

Once you've developed that structure, you should create a formal policy statement showing management's commitment to safety.

As part of that public display of commitment, some companies are finding safety incentive programs to be useful. Awards or even cash bonuses could be dished out to crews that meet certain objectives regarding safety. "It doesn't always have to be money-based either," Steel points out. "Simple recognition can go a long way. When I had my company, we always recognized employees at a nice luncheon at the end of the season."

As a final note on commitment, whenever you or your managers are out working with crews or even just visiting jobsites, be cognizant of the example you are setting. Whatever PPE is required of the crew must also be worn by you, for example. If company leaders appear to have a lax attitude toward jobsite safety, your workers will pick up on that and likely adopt the same mindset.

A = Awareness

Once commitment is established, you can begin looking at those unique nuances in your company—i.e. services offered, client mix, climate issues, new additions to your equipment fleet, specific properties your crews will be servicing—to better refine the safety training. This is what we categorize as "awareness".

"For example," Steel shares, "if you're a lawn maintenance company in Florida, your crews will probably be dealing with things like water retention areas. Operating mowers safely in these types of areas becomes particularly important for those workers being placed in these situations."

Another example would be that for 10 years you were a lawn care company. Now you're starting to also provide some tree care services. "The training is going to have to be much different," Steel says. "You're now dealing with things like chainsaws and climbing equipment, and a new set of hazards. These are new areas that will require some specialized training.

"You, or perhaps someone on your management team if you're a large company, must ensure that this specialized training is happening on a continual basis," Steel goes onto say. "If you can devote 10-15 minutes of effective training every week, it can have a big impact. Just be sure to look at the type of equipment being used and the specific work being done to make sure the training is effective."

Another element of awareness is recognizing near misses. "Safety as an industry—whether it's landscaping, aviation or anything else—is generally more reactive than proactive," Steel says. "Companies usually respond after an incident has occurred. It's very important to make workers feel comfortable about reporting near misses. For instance, did a mower operator feel some tire slippage on an early morning job where there's still some dew on the grass? He needs to know that it's important for him to report this to his crew leader so it can be addressed before something bad happens."

As a final note on awareness, be sure to build in some extra training time to address these near misses as they pop up throughout the season. And make sure this and all training is available in the appropriate language for your workers.

R = Response

So what happens when an accident occurs in your company? What changes do you make to guard against something similar happening again?

Steel says a big issue is when employees alter the safety mechanisms on equipment; i.e. string trimmer guards and lawnmower discharge chutes. "The operator presence system in a riding mower is an area where some contractors want to cut corners," Steel points out. "I was recently doing some zero-turn training for a large company. The owner actually told me his employees like to start the mowers from the ground so they can warm up a bit. So they like to bypass the operator presence system, which requires a person to be in the mower seat in order for the engine to start. That's not good. Something known as 'hydraulic creep' can allow the mower to begin moving forward even if the control levers are in neutral." Never attempt to bypass the operator presence system on a riding mower, or even a walk-behind mower for that matter.

Another safety feature on many riding mowers is the ROPS. It should be in the "up" position at all times. "Most landscape contractors now understand why the ROPS is important," Steel says. "Fortunately, most manufacturers have a ROPS that can be folded down. Then the operator can lower it while mowing under trees with low-hanging branches. But then the operator has to remember to put it back in the 'up' position later. The problem is that many operators leave it in the down position all of the time."

Recognizing these potential problem areas before an accident occurs is essential. Then you can provide the necessary training to help avoid them.

T = Training

As pointed out in the Awareness section of this article, really effective training is specific to the unique nuances of your company, such as riding mowers with ROPS and/or mowing under low-hanging branches. "Training should be targeted to the hazards identified at worksites where you work," Steel reminds.

Aside from that, there are numerous resources available to help you assemble your library of training materials. OSHA's website, osha.gov, is a great place to start. "PLANET has actually worked with OSHA to create 52 safety fact sheets specific to landscaping," Steel points out. "Insurance companies are another good source. Schools with horticulture programs are another good one."

As a matter of fact, Steel and Penn State University just completed a draft of a new manual for the landscaping industry. For information on how to obtain a copy of the newly published instruction manual, “Safety & Health Management Planning - A Reference Guide for Safety & Health Best Practices in the Green Industry,” send an email to [email protected].

Videos have become a more common, highly effective training tool. With so much video content available online, and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets making content delivery more efficient, it's no wonder that more landscape companies are taking advantage of video.

"Safety videos can really come in handy, especially in multi-branch companies or in companies that often experience high employee turnover," Steel says. "Still, you must do a thorough evaluation to make sure the videos are on target. Also, talk to your employees to find out if the videos are helpful. If they're not, there's no sense spending any more money on them. You can always get good safety videos from manufacturers too. Toro/Exmark put a good one together with the National Safety Council a few years ago, for example."

Stihl also offers an extensive library of safety videos on both its website and YouTube channel. Check them out or get in touch with your Stihl dealer for help.

One element of training that many companies fail to execute is proper documentation. "Keep track of each employee; when they received training, where, and what exactly the training consisted of," Steel recommends. "You also want each employee to sign off that they'd received training. If OSHA ever comes knocking, they'll ask the employee questions to evaluate their safety knowledge. You'll want to have proof that you'd provided adequate training to each employee."

E = Evaluation

After all is said and done, it's important to take a hard, honest look at the training you are delivering. "For one reason or another, many companies fail to solicit questions from employees after the training is over," Steel points out. "Did the employees like it? We're not talking about the snacks that were served either. What did your employees learn from the content of the safety messages?

"You can use that feedback to provide retraining if necessary," Steel continues. "For instance, did all employees understand the concept of chemical absorption through the skin? Most don't. The same thing with noise accumulation. You can train on subjects like this, but you have to make sure the employees understood it."

Dr. Sam Steel, senior research associate, Penn State University, is a PLANET safety adviser who provides email answers to member questions about safety, OSHA policies, checklists and forms, and supplies bilingual safety resources and information. He can be reached at [email protected].