Lawn Butler’s Luis Escobar gets a new pair of safety boots from manager Daniel Doutt.
Photo courtesy of Lawn Butler

Things can go wrong at a moment’s notice in the landscaping world. Sharp pruning shears, revving chainsaws, big trucks and heavy machinery can add up to disaster if workers aren’t taking the proper precautions.

“We work in an environment where just about everything can go wrong if you are not paying attention,” says Andy Sykes, owner of Garrett Churchill in the greater Philadelphia area.

But while those types of injuries can be devastating, smaller injuries are a threat every day, even if they aren’t life-threatening. “It’s not the hedge trimmer or the chainsaw because when people are around those things, they’re already thinking, ‘This could harm me easily,’” says Rudy Larsen, owner of Lawn Butler in West Centerville, Utah.

Back injuries, pulled muscles and sprained ankles are common, so Lawn Butler encourages employees to ask for help instead of doing everything alone. “I just think it’s a He-Man culture. ‘I can lift it and I don’t need any help,’” Larsen says. So he strives for a company culture where asking for help is applauded and encouraged.


Safety culture is a continuous work in motion, says J. Lee Buffington, owner of Turf Tamer in Fort Payne, Alabama. “It must be something that you talk about with everyone in the company. It must be top of mind,” he says. “You can’t possibly think about every possible danger in the workplace every day. It has to be a culture that people feel that they can stop a process without recourse if they feel that something is unsafe.”

At Lawn Butler, positive reinforcement is the key. Rather than punish workers for breaking safety protocols, he tries to focus on rewarding employees for exemplary behavior. “I think it’s building a culture of safety over productivity,” Larsen says.

The company holds a monthly pancake breakfast to talk about safety and each spring, all team members receive a new pair of safety boots.

Donning reflective vests is part of the safety process at Lawn Butler because it’s a conscious decision that reminds wearers that they need to be in safety mode, says owner Rudy Larsen.
Photo courtesy of Lawn Butler

They also sometimes do a High Five program where managers award $5 to crew members spotted doing the right things out on the job like wearing safety equipment.

“We give you a high five and we give you five bucks,” Larsen says. “If we’re out on a large job, there might be a couple of crews there and it might cost us $30 but at the end of the day, our workers’ comp is close to $100,000 and if we can lower that by 10 percent, that’s saving us 10 grand.”

Garrett Churchill was recently awarded a National Association of Landscape Professionals award for most improved fleet safety. Sykes says Garrett Churchill has been involved in NALP’s safety program for a number of years and they’ve consistently won awards for no vehicle accidents and no lost time due to injury.

A few years back, the company started really discussing potential hazards and now they have a standard routine to check jobsites at the beginning of the day, during the job and at the end of each day. “We don’t know what went on while we were not there overnight,” Sykes says. “We need to be cognizant of changes during the day, and we certainly don’t want to leave any hazards overnight for our clients.”

Cuts from pruning shears are some of the most common injuries Sykes sees, but he says they’re not very severe. The company has also had some bad luck with back injuries and muscle strains, he says. “We always tell the crews, ‘Get help when you need help,’” he says. “We constantly go over proper lifting techniques.”

At Garrett Churchill, everyone is expected to look out for one another. That means checking each other’s personal protective equipment and participating in safety meetings. “We also share the expense of poor safety habits that include time lost at work, a crew being a member short for a day or two due to an injury (and) the expense of increased insurance costs,” Sykes says.

And it’s working. At Lawn Butler, the workers’ compensation experience modification rate is only .6.

“If we can turn a cut that required stitches into a cut that requires a Band-Aid, we have made progress.” Andy Sykes, owner, Garrett Churchill
Vehicle accidents.

It’s important to start with the basics when it comes to vehicle safety. Obeying local traffic laws including speed limits is a good start. At Garrett Churchill, drivers are also required to maintain a safe following distance based on the vehicle they’re driving and the load they’re carrying.

At Garrett Churchill, there’s also a strict no hand-held phone policy, although the company prefers no phone activity whatsoever to avoid distractions.

Larsen uses GPS tracking to monitor speeding and heavy braking to make sure drivers are being careful. “We’ve used that pretty aggressively,” he says.

When someone is speeding, they receive a text message with the title, You are loved.

“And so it’s like, ‘Hey, we love you; we care about you; we don’t want you to get in an accident and get hurt,’ because at the end of the day our goal is to take care of our employees and get them home safely,” Larsen says.

But sometimes things are out of your control. Last year, a Garrett Churchill truck was headed back to their offices with three crew members when a car crossed a center lane and hit the truck. “Fortunately, everyone was only shaken and there were no injuries,” he says. “The truck was a total loss, but things like that can be replaced.”

Once vehicles have gotten to the jobsite, both companies insist on using cones for parked trucks. But it’s not just to alert oncoming traffic.

“We’re not necessarily worried about somebody running into our vehicle but it really just creates a mindset of ‘OK, I’m not going to walk around out from behind the trailer and potentially get hit,’” Larsen says.

“It must be something that you talk about with everyone in the company. It must be top of mind.” J. Lee Buffington, owner, Turf Tamer
Learn from mistakes.

Prevention is always ideal, but it’s impossible to avoid every accident.

At Garrett Churchill, they do an accident report to determine what caused the accident, who was at fault and what can be done to avoid it in the future. “A lot of the findings turn into safety talks and some into the team manual,” Sykes says. “It’s very hard to eliminate every accident so we are really trying to manage the severity. If we can turn a cut that required stitches into a cut that requires a Band-Aid, we have made progress.”

Turf Tamer has a three-step program after an incident to prevent similar accidents from happening again. They’ll visit the accident site to determine all of the contributing factors, discuss the findings with the safety committee and find preventative measures and tell the teams about the accident to make everyone aware of how they can be avoided in the future.