Safety measures should be the first priority once crews arrive at a jobsite.
Photos courtesy of United Right-of-Way

Picture it. A crewmember is edging a suburban lawn, working his way toward the corner while he zeroes in on the job. Wearing ear protection, he’s focused on the finish – and he doesn’t see the young boy barreling up the sidewalk. Suddenly, the edger fires back as it hits a root, and the guy loses control of the equipment just as the boy is passing him. The blade catches the kid’s leg and suddenly, the ambulance is on its way.

This is just one of the case scenarios that Affiliated Ground Maintenance in Erie, Pa., shared with employees during a weekly safety tailgate. President Crystal Arlington and her husband, Rich – the company’s business manager – also operate an expert witness firm. “When we bring case scenarios to the table, it makes people think,” Crystal Arlington says.

A driver backs up a truck in a parking lot without a spotter. (Crash.)

A team lead operating a mower neglects to secure the safety shoot. A rock ricochets into the client’s kitchen window.

“The best thing I ever did was hire expert witnesses as staff,” Arlington says, adding that several other employees share this credential and a penchant for playing it safe.

Safety talk segues into training, and over the years, Affiliated Ground Maintenance has created a portfolio of protocols to guide everything from operating a mower to laundering pesticide-contaminated clothing. Don Mahoney says the safety protocols at Mahoney Associates in Southampton, N.Y. “initially came from the school of hard knocks,” but as the company evolved and grew, it adopted formalized programs and protocols, relying on industry resources and a peer network.

“Safety in the beginning was pretty much wearing earmuffs,” he says, comparing the bare-bones approach to today’s thorough safety culture. Every new team member is issued ear and eye protection, and five-point break-away high-visibility vests.

“There are so many resources out there,” Mahoney says, sharing how his company eventually became a National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) Stars Safe company. “One of my favorite ways to learn about safety training and policies is what I call, ‘R&D’ or rob and duplicate. If you’re in a network or have a good peer group who have figured it out and put manuals and programs together, generally they are willing to share with you.

“Safety is so important for multiple reasons,” Mahoney continues. “It separates you from the pack and when we shop for insurance or are up for renewal, if we can go to a vendor and give them a binder that shows the past couple of years of safety training and equipment you give out, it shows that you are committed to safety.”

Team members sign in for every training meeting so there’s a running record to track attendance and emphasize accountability.

You can never assume that someone knows safety. “Experience using all of the equipment does not mean that they’ve had to work on the side of a highway or major street,” says Chris Testa, general manager, United Right-of-Way, Phoenix, Ariz. His company serves Departments of Transportation (DOT) and municipalities where traffic is a real risk.

The key message Testa sends to team members: “Everyone has to look out for each other.”

Here are other important take-aways to emphasize to employees about operating safely.

Teach from Scratch.

As Testa said, just because a new worker shows up with a decorated resume doesn’t mean you can write off safety training. Different companies train differently.

“If the person has 10 years of experience riding a piece of equipment, we will put that to the test to verify,” he says. “We still put him through the same process to make sure we are comfortable sending him out with a crew.” A crew leader and supervisor observe the new hire and provide pointers.

Watch Out.

“Be aware of your surroundings” is a main message at Affiliated Grounds Maintenance. Spotters are key for backing a truck out anywhere, any time. Safety cone placement is job one when crews arrive on a site. “As soon as they drop their feet from the truck, the first thing they should do is mark the work area with orange cones or flags,” Arlington says.

Listen Up.

Safety tailgate meetings before launching the day’s work are a common activity at many landscape companies. But Affiliated Grounds Maintenance flips the switch on these gatherings sometimes and uses them as feedback sessions. “Those 10-minute meetings aren’t just for us to teach safety. It’s also to get insight from the staff on what happened while they were on the job, what made them feel uneasy, what equipment isn’t working right or what on a site is not safe,” she says. This information is noted and might eventually end up being integrated into the company’s safety protocols.

Testa spends time during some safety meetings to review situations that occurred during the week. “We talk about what was done right and examine what we might have done differently,” he says. “For example, should we have put out 10 cones instead of seven, or should there have been a crash attenuator device in place?”

You want the team to stay frosty.

“When your experience modification ratings are down and your insurance premiums are looking pretty good at the end of the year, you don’t want to get complacent,” Testa says. “Even when everyone feels, ‘Oh, we’ve got this nailed, we are a safe company, we’ve gone 292 days without an incident,’ you can’t let your guard down.”

That’s why Testa doesn’t just document accidents, but he also records “near-miss” incidents to use for upcoming training exercises. “Maybe a car didn’t see our truck until the last minute and there was no accident, but there could have been,” he says. “Bring that up and ask them to write about it. Then, talk about it.”

Read, See, Do.

Every piece of equipment comes with a manual, and Arlington makes sure that team members pay attention to the fine print. Next comes hands-on training, starting with a demonstration. Then, she or supervisors watch as the crewmember takes a turn. “I do it first, you show me, then we do it together – and we have videos and literature,” she says.

Check 1, 2.

Drop-ins on site keep employees accountable, Arlington says. “It’s the only thing we have in our back pocket that really works.”

Mahoney adds. “Because of human nature, we constantly reinforce safety and do random inspections,” he says. “Every so often, a manager will make sure they hand out the DOT compliances forms to the fleet manager. They never know when they are going to get a spot check, so it’s about being consistent but not consistent so everyone stays on their toes.”

COVID Considerations.

The pandemic introduced a whole battery of health and safety topics to tailgate meetings, guided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations. Frequent handwashing, social distancing, mask wearing and contactless customer service are some of new protocols landscape companies put in place to stay open as essential businesses. “All of our trucks are wiped down daily and we are in cleaning mode – handles on equipment, rakes and the green buckets if they are lugging leaves, all of that gets sanitized,” Mahoney says.

Get Involved.

Don’t expect your insurance carrier to facilitate everything. “We stay engaged with employees and with the insurance carrier and get whatever medical information we can to manage the claim,” Testa says. “The last thing you want is for a situation to spiral out of control, and a lot of companies operate under the perception that ‘the insurance company will be on top of it.’ We have been involved in situations where possibly a reporting deadline was missed and the next thing you know, it looks like we handled it wrong. As a business we pay the price, and we would have filled it out and gotten it in on time.”

The operations manager at United Right-of-Way is dialed into the workers’ compensation claims process and protocols. Naming a point person keeps safety situations organized.

Ultimately, the safety message must come from the top. Safety is more than saving money on insurance. “The cost savings is merely an added benefit,” Testa says. “We don’t have a great safety slogan or anything like that, but I can say that we do take safety very seriously.”