How PLANET’s program can help your company

Farmside Landscape & Design requires all field employees to wear safety vests. Company management took the step after learning that one of its employees barely avoided being struck by a vehicle. The back of the vests display the company’s logo, reaffirming its committment to safety to the clients and the public.

From the handling of chemicals and fertilizers to operating equipment and driving trucks, the landscape contracting industry has its safety challenges.

Missteps in safety not only cost a company lost time and more money in higher insurance and workers’ compensation premiums, but also present the potential for injury or loss of life.

For some companies, that’s a red flag that a greater focus needs to be placed on safety training. But for ones like Farmside Landscape & Design in Wantage, N.J., the prevailing philosophy is that it’s better to be proactive rather than reactive.

Miles Kuperus, president of Farmside Landscape & Design, says the company’s safety training program did not emanate from “an alarming situation,” but was born of a desire to “get our tails in gear”.

The company had been tracking its equipment damages and workers’ compensation costs. “We believed if that was properly controlled and measured, we could improve our position,” he says. “With a heightened awareness, we could control those bottom-line costs through a proactive approach. That was the genesis to our safety program.”

The program is working. Not only has the company saved 10 percent on its workers’ compensation costs, but it has won awards from the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) for its safety operations every year for about 10 years.

“We’ve won everything from Bronze to Silver to Gold; we’ve received a Gold level award a few times,” says Kuperus. “That’s definitely an accomplishment.”

Farmside Landscape & Design has been in business since 1986. The company serves the tri-state area of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York in the commercial, residential, industrial and municipal market.

Close to 30 employees provide services in five departments: design/build, maintenance, turf care, plant health care and snow removal. Maintenance is the most dominant service, followed by design/build.

As such, employees run a variety of equipment – that necessitates that they understand how to operate each piece of equipment in a safe manner.

Safety training can come either from the outside – such as programs presented from vendors – or conducted in-house, as it is at Farmside Landscape & Design. “We do something different from the norm,” Kuperus points out. “In the last couple of years, we’ve been bringing in our insurance folks, our agent as well as the underwriter. The intention is to give a face to the insurance company.” For example, the representatives from Selective Insurance may present a PowerPoint program on truck safety.

Having the representatives make an occasional appearance at company safety training meetings shows employees that insurance isn’t “just a free ride,” Kuperus says. “It’s a cost item we can control. They get to see the face of the insurance company along with the impact insurance has on us as a company. We’re building a team where our employees know who these people are.”

On the other hand, the company is also “showcasing” its employees to the insurance company representatives, Kuperus notes. “It’s a double net positive,” he adds. “It’s been very well-received from our insurance company because they’re seeing that we’re proactive in our approach to risk management.”

Traffic safety, including placing safety cones around parked trucks, is an important element of Farmside’s safety program.

The company adapted the components of its safety-training program through PLANET. “They have an awesome document you can follow and custom-tailor to your company,” says Kuperus. “It’s very impressive for a start-up program. It’s very comprehensive in nature to the point that it could be overwhelming, so you have to take things in bite sizes.”

Join the STARS

PLANET – in conjunction with CNA, the seventh largest U.S. commercial insurer and the 13th largest U.S. property & casualty insurer, which provides insurance protection to more than a million businesses and professionals in the United States and internationally – offers a number of tips on how a landscape company can establish and execute a safety training program.

Through a free program called STARS (Safety Training Achieves Remarkable Success) Safe Company Program, landscape companies can lower their risk costs by reducing hazards and injuries. The companies that participate in STARS are asked to sign a Safe Company Pledge that commits their company to:

  • Follow the guidelines in the Safety Program for Green Industry Companies (CD) for developing a safe company.
  • Establish an active safety committee within their company.
  • Conduct regular safety awareness training.
  • Document, measure and investigate each accident.
  • Meet OSHA regulatory requirements.
  • Enter the annual PLANET/CNA safety recognition awards program, which honors those companies whose safety levels include no vehicle accidents, no injuries or illnesses and no days away from work.
  • Share their best safety practices with other STARS members.
  • Encourage others to become STARS members.

STARS members also have access to a press release template that can be used to announce their participation in the program to clients and the community, including competitors.

The CD, which can be obtained through PLANET’s website at in the safety and risk management area, includes a comprehensive company safety policy on factors such as motor vehicle safety, preventing back injuries, return-to-work/modified duty programs, chemical safety, reporting and investigating accidents, and complying with OSHA standards, among other elements.

It offers guidance to the industry on developing and implementing a company safety policy, including tips and checklists. Also included are more than 50 ready-to-use forms, sample policies, payroll stuffers and other safety ideas successfully used by others in the green industry, with many forms also available in Spanish.

At Farmside Landscape & Design, Kuperus has the final oversight of the safety-training program. “If I am one of the key drivers, it has more meaning to the team,” he says.

The company’s mechanic serves as the point person from an equipment perspective. “He’s constantly informing me of what’s going on,” Kuperus says. “He’s got the authority to talk with the employees because equipment damages impact his day. We’ve empowered the mechanic to be the person to monitor the equipment.

“In terms of the onsite damages, our department heads are responsible for that, it’s part of their job description.”

One employee even agreed to become certified through the OSHA to help the company with compliance issues.

Apprentice training for newbies

Newly hired employees are put through apprenticeship-style training. “We find those are the best and safest employees,” Kuperus says. “If we bring in a foreman at a higher level, we find the retention rate on those individuals is very low, much lower than a person who started as an apprentice. We’re also teaching conduct with the client as well as how we conduct ourselves on the equipment, so they don’t have any bad habits when we take them on.”

With the average employee tenure of 10 years, the company has been “extremely good” in retaining employees, something that Kuperus says is the key to safety at his company.

The company holds tailgate safety talk meetings for 15 to 20 minutes each Tuesday, where employees discuss a particular topic that’s pertinent to the time of the season. That is followed by a discussion about near misses observed during the week or direct hits the company may have taken and what measures will be conducted to make corrections for the future.

Having a “heightened awareness” while in the field is perhaps the greatest safety challenge in the industry, Kuperus notes. “Especially with maintenance,” he adds. “Every week you’re at the same exact site. How do you make that interesting or sharpen your skill set? I would say the repetitive nature of maintenance operations can make someone become a little bit nonchalant, and you have a heightened risk of an issue.”

It’s a given that if employees see something wrong with the equipment, they should let the mechanic and managers know right away, Kuperus says. “We want to know the issues,” he says. “We’ll deal with it. In order for us being solid, that’s the key.”

Traffic safety, such as placing safety cones around parked trucks, is also important, Kuperus points out. This year, his company instituted a mandate that all employees wear safety vests in the field. “We had a near miss that we talked about in a safety meeting, and within two weeks of that discussion we implemented the mandatory wearing of safety vests,” he says.

Back-saving equipment

Companies that carry good equipment ensure that their employees will not have back injuries, Kuperus points out. “We’re pretty automated,” he says. “That’s one of the things that helps us be efficient and with the proper equipment, you’re really minimizing the lifting.”

As for chemical safety, Kuperus says all of his company’s trucks are equipped with spill kits along with MSDS books. “That is not exclusive to chemicals, it’s a whole policy we have that each truck is equipped with it and everybody knows how to do spill management,” he says. “In terms of fertilizers, we only allow our people specialized in that department to handle any of our chemicals.”

One of the best safety practices a company can undertake is tracking equipment damages, all the way down to broken guards, Kuperus says. “If you haven’t yet done it, it will be an eye-opener,” he says. “It is trackable and is number one for you to understand the value of what you need to do in safety.”

Another best management practice is to make sure your insurance company is informed about what you’re going to do, Kuperus says. “They can give you insight and input as well,” he says. “Make sure your insurance company is part of your safety program.”

A third practice is to “have fun doing the work and understand and underscore the value of safety for your employees’ family’s income,” Kuperus says. “Show them the value from a family perspective of them going home safe every night and be proud of the professionalism that they’ve got a company that cares for them and their safety.”

PLANET points out that a safety training program can be a significant marketing tool for companies to their customers and potential customers.

Kuperus says Farmside could do a better job at that, though he adds that referrals to clients come from the fact that the clients are already aware the company places importance on safety. “It’s not so much that we have to market it is that we’re leading by example,” he says.

Kuperus says that each year the safety program has been in place, the benefits are “more intense, with constant improvement.” The reduction in workers’ compensation rates is a result of “being very transparent with our policy,” he says. “Through the STARS program, we can give our agent and underwriter documents and along with our PLANET awards, it showcases where we are within the industry. That has been very net positive.”

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at [email protected].