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Accidents Can Be a Disaster, Safety Can Be Profitable

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While our work can be hazardous, it does not have to be deadly.

However, according to the recent Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, between 2003 and 2006 there were a total of 789 deaths “due to traumatic injuries among landscape services workers and their first-line supervisors.” Of those deaths, “nearly 80 percent occurred in the landscape services industry.”

Statistics don’t lie; this is one arena where the cold, hard, truthful story is told. One in every 50 landscape workers suffers an injury each year that kept her or him away from work, for an average of seven days at a time. And the cost of injury can be catastrophic.

In a recent case where a landscape crew member was struck by an errant motorist and lost his legs, a New York jury returned a $11.2 million verdict; more than half the blame was apportioned against the employer, charging improper training.

These shocking statistics and story all show that lack of safety can take a massive human and economic toll. The flip side, though, is also true. Safety can be profitable. First and foremost, it protects the lives and health of both your employees and your customers. Second, it means that your company is effectively putting into action the extensive and ongoing safety training that you are doing with your employees, both at headquarters and “on the tailgate.” Finally, running a company with an exemplary safety record can put actual dollars in your pocket by saving you money on your premiums.

Nelson Colvin, a former president of the California Landscape Contractors Association and now president of Golden Oak Cooperative Corporation in Chatsworth, California (a cooperative group that provides insurance coverage for landscape industry businesses), explains the dollars and cents of safety when it comes to workers’ compensation, the system that pays workers wages and health bills for on-the-job injuries.

Most landscape contractors with any significant number of employees are in the various state systems. Those that aren’t are risking shattering losses in the event of an employee accident.

“The idea is to stay safe and avoid losses,” Colvin says. “Though the workers’ compensation system is administered differently in different states, the principles are the same no matter where you are. In California, your workers’ comp experience is rated by the state. You start with a baseline rating of 100, and you get adjusted up or down, based on claims made during a three-year period.”

Colvin talks through the numbers with this example: “Say you’ve got 400 employees at $15 an hour. That’s a $720,000 annual payroll. With a workers’ comp rating of 100, your premiums could be eight dollars per $1000 of payroll. That’s an annual insurance bill of $57,000. If you have a bunch of accidents, you could find yourself re-rated up to 125, which means a 25 percent higher premium. When that happens, you’ll find yourself paying $72,000 a year on the same payroll. Potentially, you could get re-rated again to 160—then prepare to pay through the nose.”

It can also go in the other direction, Colvin points out. “Get modified to a 75 rating for good safety, and your payment could drop as low as $42,000.”

In Colvin’s opinion, insurers are very good at looking out for their interests when there are accidents, as in fighting the claim. But they are not nearly as good at being proactive with their insured customers. Safety training is left up to the individual company.

Many in the industry meet the challenge through a combination of safety manuals for study, work-yard briefings, ‘tailgate talks,’ and one-on-one supervisor-employee trainings. Extra care is taken with employees new to the industry or new to the company. With the kind of employee turnover that’s too often found in the industry, training never stops.

Franchisor U.S. Lawns, based in Orlando, Florida, and owned by industry giant ValleyCrest Landscape Companies of Calabasas, California, tries to inculcate a culture of safety among its 200-plus franchisees.

Mike Fitzpatrick, U.S. Lawns vice president who has been in the industry for two decades and with the company since 1999, is in charge of all franchise support, as well as the company’s national accounts. He says that U.S. Lawns is striving for a safety culture from the top down, and that the top includes him.

“Safety is a core competency in our business,” Fitzpatrick explains. “It’s job number one. Every single one of our franchisees gets a documented safety manual that’s two inches thick, covering everything from fire prevention to blood-borne pathogens, to the safe operation of motor vehicles. The manual sets out our safety rules and policies, and even diagrams our weekly tailgate talks for crew chiefs and crew members.”

Fitzpatrick is adamant that crew chiefs pay particular attention to new employees. Just as many military casualties occur with a soldier’s first exposure to combat, Fitzpatrick believes that most accidents happen in the first 90 days on the job. He also cites Mondays as worrisome, when crew members might be unfocused after a weekend away from the job.

“We try to do our tailgate meetings on Monday mornings,” he explains. “We’ve got 62 separate topics in our safety binder for crew chiefs to use, and they use their judgment, depending on what’s most relevant. If there’s been a lot of rain, it could be a tailgate talk on wet weather driving. If trees are on the agenda, it could be about safe pruning, or eye safety, or any other thing that the crew chief thinks is relevant to cover.”

Mike Dingman, senior vice president at ValleyCrest, who oversees the company’s safety program, is also alert to that ‘first 90 days’ window of vulnerability for rookie accidents. “We’ve developed a buddy system on jobsites, as well as created an easy way for new crew members to learn safety habits,” he says. “Workers must wear a green safety vest for the first 90 days. There are a couple of simple reasons we do that. One is that it makes them more visible in the field, and second, it allows more experienced workers to keep an eye on them.”

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