With a competitive labor market, employee safety is increasingly important to avoid missed days.
Photo courtesy of United Right of Way

Years ago, there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on safety, says Chris Testa, general manager of United Right of Way. It was expected that your crews would use their best judgment around dangerous equipment, but companies offer far more programs and training today than ever before. That’s a good thing.

“Now, we’ve got less people on the job,” says Testa. Fewer people, to Testa, means more responsibility falls on one person.

His company primarily takes on municipal work, so in recent years, they developed a safety program to lessen the missed work days. This reduced the risk of being short-staffed in an already scarce labor market.

“Years ago, we thought it was not a big deal but when you’re filing for workers' compensation, it might lead to the employee continuing to go to a chiropractor for a period of time,” Testa says. “Next thing you know, we took a hit on that.”

At Trio Outdoor Maintenance in Mount Clemens, Michigan, Owner Bryan Buero says jobsite safety wasn’t very complicated until the business started offering tree care, which can be a dangerous industry.

“We’ve always been safety-oriented,” he says. “But getting into tree work, there were new facets to it.” Trio Outdoor Maintenance began tree work around 2006, and after observing his crew on several jobs, Buero says he saw too many close calls. He realized it was time to buckle down on safety protocols.

The same goes for Curby’s Lawn and Garden in Gardner, Kansas. Larry Craig, safety manager, says safety has always been a top priority.

In fact, Craig says the company has gone at least 15 years without a safety incident.

Jumping in.

The first thing United Right of Way did to enhance its safety program was reach out to its state business association for help.

“In the state of Arizona, we have a small business association, and we got into the program with other companies and in other fields to share resources amongst each other,” Testa says.

Buero kicked things into high gear at his company first by educating himself and his crew. “I thought about where the most logical place to start would be, and picked up industry magazines,” he says. Buero skimmed fatality reports for tree workers and posted them all over the shop, even in the bathrooms.

Once he had a grasp on better protocols, he participated in a nationwide safety challenge. They adopted the motto “Look, Listen, Feel” and he had posters made with the new safety mantra.

“These guys, they have headphones on, but you can stop and see if equipment is running or hear it. If you can’t hear it, you can put your hand on it,” he says. “(That motto) really broke the ice for better safety conversation.”

“Your crew doesn't leave in the morning with the intent of somebody getting hurt.” Chris Testa, general manager, United Right of Way

Tailgate talk.

Many professionals in the industry have regular safety meetings to ensure every crew member is on the same page. Whether you’re touching base with your crews before rollout, or meeting around a conference table, these discussions are critical.

“It’s a good way for us to talk about things that might have gone wrong,” Testa says. During his safety meetings, he’s found that many of the incidents on the jobsite come from someone not paying attention.

“Your crew doesn't leave in the morning with the intent of somebody getting hurt,” he says. “But more times than not, that comes from not paying attention.” Even the smallest incidents get reviewed in the safety meetings.

At Curby’s, the crew doesn’t roll out in the morning until all their equipment has been checked.

“We remind them every single morning,” Larry says. “They check the lights, make sure everything is tied down and secure every day.”

With materials from the National Association of Landscape Professionals, the company runs tailgate safety meetings once a week to keep everyone on the same page. They also host larger monthly meetings to cover wider topics. United Right of Way breaks the meetings down into smaller sessions and leaves crew leaders or supervisors in charge of the content. Testa says it has proven to be easier than gathering everyone in a large group and trying to cover everything at once.

The crew at Trio Outdoor Maintenance looks forward to the safety meetings held sporadically throughout the month.

“It shows them that this company cares about them,” Buero says. Any serious safety issues are also brought up to crew members individually.

It's in the culture.

A huge part of a successful safety program is making sure it’s intertwined with the company’s culture, says Buero. “My company is only as good as my worst worker,” he says. Buero admits that some new workers don’t last at Trio simply because of how serious they take their safety.

Buero rewards his team with lunches and donuts at morning meetings when their safety performance is up to par, and he says the smallest gestures make the most impact.

“I gave them all shirts – matching shirts, and it was like Christmas morning to them," he says. "It’s something simple to add to the team culture.”

At United Right of Way, the safety protocols extend far beyond the shop. Sometimes work takes crews on the road to different states and it’s always the job of the supervisor to keep track of local emergency rooms.

“They track down the closest hospital or closest clinic and then those are things that they'll go over with the crew if something happens,” Testa says. “We have an internal report system and no matter the severity of it, whether it's a splinter or just somebody observing something, there's a report that individual fills out.”

Testa doesn’t have a set incentive system for safety but instead he focuses on making sure protocols are universally understood.

“I try during the training portion to make sure we are doing things that garner their attention," he says. At company parties, he makes sure to recognize those who have gone above and beyond on the job, which includes following safety protocols.

“I don’t like to tempt fate,” Buero says.