The Foundation Of Landscape Employee Safety

Recognizing risk, investing in safety, and setting an example from the top-down.

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By Dyle A. MacGregor, CLP
From the June 2023 Issue

As owner of NJ-based Keep It Green Landscaping, Dyle A. MacGregor and his crew earned a “Best of the Best” Safety award from the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) last year. To achieve this, Keep It Green maintained the “Overall Safety Achievement Award – Gold Level” status for the past three years. In fact, they’ve been winning multiple safety awards fairly consistently every year since 2000! Here, MacGregor shares his perspective on creating a culture of safety for a landscaping crew.

What is safety? Is it driver safety? Machine operator safety? Jobsite safety? The safe application and storage of pesticides and protecting the environment? I think it’s all of the above—and a whole lot more. When I look up the word “safety” in the dictionary, it reads: “The state of being safe from risk or experiencing or causing injury, danger, or loss.” Injury, danger, and loss are all serious. Yet injury could also be a simple cut on a finger, or a sting by a wasp. No problem, we can take it, we’re tough. We’re part of the Green Industry, right?

When I was a kid, 300 years ago, I played little league baseball. When you were up at bat, you pretty much put your life at risk. So when you were inevitably hit by a pitch, the game stopped, the coach ran out, and it was generally decided you were not dead or going to die. Next—and you know what I am going to say here—you were told to “walk it off.” So you did and it worked for Little League.

However, injury in the Green Industry can be quite a different story. Injury in the Green Industry can be loss of fingers, toes, eyes, hearing, and in some cases, it could very well mean loss of life.

Landscape Employee Safety
(Photos: Keep It Green Landscaping

Recognizing Danger In The Green Industry

In examining safety, danger was part of the definition. Can we mitigate danger? Do we have procedures in place to lessen and reduce the many dangerous tasks that we, as an Industry, perform? Do we even fully recognize a task for its true danger when it’s commonplace?

For example, if I were to ask a room of Green Industry pros, “How many of you own or use a chainsaw?” I can imagine most hands going up. But if asked, “How many have safety chaps and enforce their use?” I can imagine the number of hands raised greatly declining. Yet of the hands that did not go up, I’ll bet many could tell you the saws’ model numbers, how many they own, and what they like or dislike about each model with great specificity.

I live and work in northern New Jersey. Income levels are on the higher side and the economy is usually pretty good as banking, insurance, pharmaceutical, and high-tech industries dot the area with well-paying jobs. Your average customer here has high expectations.

As a result, you might think all contractors would be held to extremely high standards, and in many respects they are. You will see new trucks, new trailers, new machines, wonderful graphics, and glossy marketing pieces in mailboxes. What you often don’t find, although I think it is getting better, is a high degree and focus on safety.

So while a shiny truck and trailer with a nice graphic wrap might look really good, when you take a hard look behind the curtain… well you remember the Wizard of Oz? Far too often, you can find a lot that could be improved from a safety point of view.

So what is the point? Are we, as owners, focused on the wrong things? Are we truly focused on safety? Ask yourself. Then ask your managers. Then ask your field technicians. You may be surprised.

Safety Sources

Are you doing all you can to reduce hazards? If you’re unsure, here are some resources to look into.

Insurance Companies. When thinking about your insurance policy, loss may be the first thing that comes to mind. (I recommend you take a look at your policies and read them from time to time.) But you will actually find a lot of the words “risk” and “hazard” as well. It’s because hazards create a risk of a loss. Insurance companies have a vested interest in reducing hazards and potential loss, so they often have information available regarding safety.

OSHA. Naturally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has information, but they also conduct safety training classes. My team and I were able to attend OSHA safety classes. They were offered through the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association (NJLCA). There was a small fee, but it was well worth it.

Landscape Organizations. As mentioned above, your state landscape organization can be a great resource too. If you are not a member, I highly recommend that you join. There will be a cost to attend meetings and network, but you will meet other contractors and business people that are like-minded and willing to share their thoughts and expertise in many cases. National organizations like NALP have safety information and programs of which you can take advantage. The benefits of membership far exceed the cost.

Common Safety Practices

What are some common safety measures your landscape employees should be practicing every day? Let’s start simply, like safety cones. The word safety is in the product’s name. Safety cones! They should be on every rig. If you don’t have them on every rig, why the heck not? A truck and trailer set up is $75,000 to $150,000 nowadays. Why wouldn’t you want to protect it—and more importantly, your crew? These people are your lifeblood. Safety cones are about $50.00 each and you need three or four per truck.

Landscape Employee Safety
Safety vests are a simple and inexpensive way to keep employees safe when working near roadways. )

 

Here is an interesting one. I have driven by landscape crews where the crew is deployed and doing their respective mowing, trimming, or whatever. The safety cones are still inside the trailer. Your first thought might be to chuckle, but this is not a laughing matter. So did they forget to put the safety cones out? Do they not care about their own safety? Is there no real safety policy in place? (More on this in a moment.)

Let’s talk about safety vests. In New Jersey, if you work within 25′ of a roadway you must, by law, wear reflective clothing. Again, while it’s getting better, the reality is that roughly every other truck I pass (or 50%) has either no safety cones or no safety vests. Sometimes I will see a crew and only one of the two- to three-man crew is wearing a vest. This really has to get better, and it can, with simple focus and intention. A vest costs about $25. How many people are in your company? Can you, as an owner, afford not to keep your people protected?

Besides cones and vests, some safety practices we regularly employ/have on hand include:

  • Proper PPE for the task at hand;
  • Safety tailgate sessions (try to keep them short but lively);
  • First aid kits;
  • Fire extinguishers;
  • Safety handouts to put in the company handbook;
  • A safety bonus, paid monthly; and
  • A driver’s safety bonus paid quarterly.

Landscape Employee Safety Buy-In

Despite all other elements, the most important aspect, the foundation of all safety, is buy-in. If safety is not the absolute company culture, it’s highly likely you’re going to experience some kind of injury or loss. It may be small; it may be great. Is it a dented truck fender or a fatality because wearing a seat belt was not stressed?

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If you own or manage a company, it’s incumbent upon you to make sure that safety is a top priority, not 16th or 17th on that long list. When your team sees how important safety is to you, when you emphasize it and put money into training, policies, and equipment, they will want to follow those policies. Safety is everyone’s job. Everyone, from office staff to truck driver to crew member, must be on board. Great buy-in equals great safety.

I think buy-in starts at the very beginning of the hiring process. Find out where a new hire is “at” from a safety standpoint. Asking how many years or hours a candidate has on certain machines doesn’t tell you how safely they operated them. Some candidates look great on paper and can run twenty different machines; they may also drive excessively fast and not wear safety glasses.

I suggest putting all your policies in writing in your handbook. If you don’t have one, make one. All employees, your whole team, needs to read it. We have everyone sign a letter that they have received a handbook and were given time to read it—as well as time for asking any questions. Every state has different laws regarding employment, so make sure you are following state laws.

Let’s all do our part to make sure we keep our companies, and the Green Industry, safe.

MacGregor is Owner of Keep It Green Landscaping, based in Fair Lawn, NJ, and has been working actively in the landscape field since its establishment in 1981. A state and national award-winning company, Keep It Green is recognized for high quality workmanship and offers complete landscape maintenance, lawn care, landscape design and construction, as well as commercial snow and ice management.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at cmenapace@groupc.com.