Tailgate Training Programs


At James Martin Associates in Vernon Hills, Ill., a rigorous tailgate safety training program for all employees is mandatory. From 2006 through 2009, 131 brief tailgate sessions were held. As a result, the company reduced its out-of-pocket accident costs more than 60 percent in 2008 and 50 percent in 2009, Vice President of Finance Shari Dalziel says.

“In 2007, our landscape season accident costs were $35,000. In 2008, our costs were $12,000 and in 2009, $17,000,” Dalziel says. She and others at the full-service landscape company attribute those savings to a proactive tailgate training program.

Although many companies in the industry conduct tailgate training, mistakes are often made that reduce their programs’ effectiveness, says Sam Steel, senior research associate at Penn State University and NALP safety specialist. Among the mistakes he cites:

Severiano Cordoba, maintenance foreman at James Martin Associates in Vernon Hills, Ill., leads a tailgate training session on mower safety.
Photo courtesy of James Martin Associates.
  • Failure to provide training that directly relates to the work employees perform. “In other words,” Steel says, “the tailgate training is very loosely tied to the work activities of the crew members.”
  • Failure to properly train crew managers. Crew leaders or other supervisors leading tailgate training sessions need to be familiar with the subject matter/materials and need to have good presentation skills in order to enhance training, he says.
  • Failure to conduct job site safety audits. “Management should conduct safety audits at contracted work sites in order to develop or purchase training materials that relate directly to assigned work,” Steel says.
  • Failure to plan a cohesive tailgate program. Irregular scheduling, delaying training during the busiest weeks or otherwise conducting training in an inconsistent manner disrupts continuity and may result in crew members forgetting what they were trained on in the past.
  • Failure to use appropriate tailgate materials. Small print and small images are not effective when presenting training at job sites. Training materials must be user-friendly and must take into account the languages and literacy levels of workers.
  • Failure to include crew members’ opinions and “close (injury/incident) calls.” “The more ownership workers sense they have, the more effective a tailgate training program will be,” Steel says.

James Martin Associates has taken a number of steps to avoid some of the commonly made mistakes and ensure the success of its tailgate program. These steps include:

  • requiring a supervisor or experienced foreman with expertise on the topic to present each training session;
  • mandating that all employees attend tailgate sessions;
  • holding training both on-site at company headquarters and at job sites;
  • holding monthly company safety committee meetings, which include identifying tailgate training topics;
  • focusing training sessions on such safe practices as job site safety, safe driving practices and the proper use of cut-off saws;
  • creating a calendar with scheduled training dates/times, topics and trainers that is posted in English and Spanish;
  • requiring both trainers and trainees to complete sign-off forms at the end of each training session; and
  • including participation at tailgate sessions in employee performance review evaluations.
Karl Thielman of The Bruce Co. of Wisconsin demonstrates how to put on hearing protection. Effective tailgate training includes making sure crew members know how to properly put on and wear all required personal protective equipment.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Mulhern and The Bruce Co. of Wisconsin.
Posting training materials for everyone to see is a good way to reinforce topics covered in your tailgate training sessions.
Photo courtesy of Kujawa Enterprises, Inc.

Barriers to success

It’s critical that your tailgate training program have strong support from top management. That includes willingness by management to devote both time and resources to the program. Each year, close to 200 workers in the landscape industry die in job-related incidents. And from 2003 through 2008, 25,100 Hispanic workers in this industry missed at least one day of work as a result of being injured or becoming ill on the job, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Even when top management understands the cost-effectiveness of a good tailgate program, certain barriers may prevent it from succeeding, Steel says.

“Obviously, the language barrier can be a real problem. Tailgate training should be targeted to the Spanish dialects most workers on the crews will understand,” he says. “Training barriers also exist when the crew leader and crew members are at odds over work conditions, translation or other issues.”

Not setting a good example is another big barrier, Steel says. “When the crew manager or company management does not practice the same safety behaviors being mandated for crew members, the whole tailgate training program may become ineffective.”

“Company owners should always practice what they preach. When their actions support a proactive training program, employees will sense the dedication and commitment the owner is exhibiting,” Steel says.

More tailgate training tips

  • Choose an appropriate location and time. Job sites can get very noisy. It’s a good idea to hold tailgate sessions at the job site before work begins. “Late-day scheduling is generally not effective because workers are tired and are ready to head home,” Steel says.
  • Review tailgate materials in advance. Being unprepared or unknowledgeable will “stand out like a sore thumb,” he says.
  • Schedule regular training and hold to that training calendar. Once you have started a tailgate program, don’t end it, then try to start it up again. That will give employees the message that it’s not important.
  • Involve your workers as much as possible. “Company owners should involve all levels of employees in helping to plan and implement safety and health training,” Steel says. Let knowledgeable crew members take turns presenting tailgate sessions. Always allow time for questions, but don’t be surprised if none are asked. A good way to involve trainees is through the use of hands-on training or demonstrations. For example, if you are training on personal protective equipment, have one or more trainees demonstrate to the others how to properly put it on and wear it.
  • Carefully watch for signs trainees don’t understand. Don’t use words they are unlikely to understand, and watch their facial expressions. If you don’t think they understood, “immediately retrain,” Steel suggests. “The crew manager should attempt to figure out what went wrong the first time, then correct the presentation method or material in order to make it more understandable. It could be that more hands-on training will solve the problem.”
  • Use materials that take into account multilingual workers. Train to the “lowest literacy level, and use a heavy dose of pictograms and visuals,” Steel suggests. Also, train on just one safety topic at a time. This will aid in comprehension among even low literacy level workers.
  • Retain written records. Keep the logs workers signed showing they were trained. This is important in case a dispute arises and/or a worker is injured and claims that they were never specifically trained.

Tailgate Training Resources

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based agricultural/horticultural freelance writer.