"Let's be careful." Sgt. Phil Easterhause admonished the beat cops before dispatching them into the streets to protect and to serve. That was always the final bit of advice he offered each episode following the brief morning safety meeting in precinct headquarters. Sgt. Easterhause was a character on Hill Street Blues that to this day (in my opinion anyway) remains the best police drama series ever to appear on television. It ran on NBC for most of the 1980s. Esterhause came across as both stern and caring and remains one of the most memorable characters in the series even though the actor portraying him, the incomparable Michael Conrad, died just three years into the series.
IMAGE COURTESY THE BOBCAT COMPANY.
Are you or somebody in your company getting your crews out the door each morning with the same reminder?
Safety is something never to be taken for granted - ever. That's as true in the landscape business as it is, given the perverse unpredictability of human behavior, in police work.
The fact is that the risk of job-related injury or death remains as likely for landscape workers as it does for policemen. All it takes is one split-second lapse of attention, failing to take one simple and easy precaution or being unaware of the consequences of a previously untried or unfamiliar action that can result in catastrophic injury or death.
Rookies are vulnerable
Now that spring is here we in the landscape business are hustling to get our teams into full production mode. Now is when we're adding new untrained employees and, as we all know, we're expecting these inexperienced rookies to get up to speed quickly. Soon after being hired they will be putting in long days filled with sounds of whirring steel mower blades, growling chain saws and roaring backhoes, loaders and skid steers.
Tragically, accidents are much too common in the landscape/lawn service industry that's so reliant upon unskilled and semi-skilled labor tasked with working with potentially dangerous equipment. How dangerous is it?
The U.S. Department of Labor tracks workplace fatalities and injuries by industry. Each year between 160 and 200 landscape workers die on their jobs as far as I can tell from the government's annual reports. My guess is that number is too low. It's difficult to extract precise data for industry fatalities and serious injuries due to the varied nature of the services that our industry performs. For example, many landscape companies are also heavily involved in construction and agricultural (nursery), so it's likely some of the fatalities listed in those categories actually took place in the green industry.
- Understand and comply with all OSHA regulations that apply to landscape services operations and tasks.
- Develop, implement and enforce a comprehensive safety program that includes written rules and safe work procedures. Depending on the size of your company, consider forming a health and safety committee consisting of employees and supervisors.
- Conduct an initial and daily jobsite survey before beginning work to identify all hazards and implement appropriate controls.
- Provide specific training for hazards such as roadway vehicle operation, tool and power equipment use, tree trimming and felling, power lines and other sources of electricity.
- Train operators of off-road machinery and other specialized equipment to follow manufacturers' recommended procedures for safe operation, service and maintenance.
- Monitor workers during periods of high heat stress/strain and remind workers of the signs of heat-related illness and the need to consume sufficient water during hot conditions.
(For the record, 127 federal, state and local law officers were killed in the line of duty in 2012, the lowest number since 1960.)
Regardless, these numbers in no way reflect the human suffering and financial wreckage resulting from careless work habits, lack of attention, unfamiliarity with proper equipment use or any number of other factors. As is almost always the case, it's not the hazard that you're familiar with that creates the most harm or havoc, but the totally unexpected and unforeseen occurrence.
It's obvious that I feel that every landscape, lawn care and grounds maintenance operation must commit itself to a culture of safety. This includes, but is not limited to, making sure every employee wears appropriate clothing, is equipped and uses proper personal protection equipment, is trained to safely operate tools and equipment and is informed of any potential hazards in relation to the services they provide.
Safety starts at the top of a company, with a firm commitment from the owner who obviously has a financial stake in the health and wellbeing of his or her workers. On-the-job fatalities and injuries take a huge financial toll on companies and on the families of workers. And, obviously, this is not to downplay their personal concern for their employees.
The biggest reason for working safely is the most obvious. With proper training and good work habits, nobody needs to drown mowing too near a canal or being trapped under a tractor because it slipped and turned over on a steep slope. Nobody deserves to lose an arm to a brush chipper. Nobody should die trimming limbs from a tree.
As Sgt. Esterhause reminded his beat cops before sending them from the precinct bullpen to the streets - "Let's be careful."
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