A recent study based on workers’ compensation data from Ohio and other states identified common factors leading to injuries and illnesses in the landscaping services industry.
Researchers with NIOSH and the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (OHBWC) published in this study some well-known hazards, along with some that are less recognized.
Of the 18,037 workers’ compensation claims from 2001–2017 that were analyzed, 3,311 were serious injuries. OHBWC classifies claims as medical only or lost time. Medical only claims are claims with only medical treatment and/or seven days or fewer away from work. The lost time claims are incidents that involve eight or more days away from work.
Causes of Serious Injuries
While the total number of injuries in the industry has fallen since 2001, the percent of serious injuries has increased from 16 percent to 21 percent from 2001 to 2017.
“The increase in severity of personal injuries may be tied to more powerful and unforgiving equipment and machinery that requires enhanced, hands-on training, and secondly the diversity of work being undertaken by employees,” says Sam Steel, NALP’s safety adviser. “A full-service green industry business may be contracting tree work, lawn maintenance, and landscape construction that translates into workers who may be assigned to various responsibilities within a short time span. Effective training prior to their diverse assignments within the company is critical to keeping workers safe and injury-free.”
Sprains and fractures were the most frequent type of serious injuries. This is because they are closely related to the scope of injuries that occur with slips, trips and falls in the workplace.
“It remains the number one cause of injuries among landscape workers and over the past decade tree care work and fall injuries suffered by climbers has certainly gotten the attention of government regulators,” Steel says. “And, back strains from improper lifting and falls from truck and trailer beds are being better understood as causes of long-term and serious injuries.”
Some of the common keywords that appeared in the 100 most expensive claims often included foot, knee, ankle, leg or toe. These injuries could be equipment striking legs, objects dropped on feet, feet becoming caught on an object, mower injuries or stepping in a hole.
The second most common keywords in serious claims were “fell” and “fall.” These claims often involved falling from a truck, trailer, tree or ladder or objects falling on workers, such as tree branches, tailgates and landscaping material. Poor footing sometimes contributed to the fall.
The third most common keyword for serious injuries was ‘truck,” “trailer,” or “tailgate,” which was found in 22 percent of claims. Incidents that happened working in, on, or around trucks and trailers include smashed fingers in tailgates, injuries to hands or feet while hooking or unhooking trailers, falls from trucks or trailers, injuries sustained from contact with equipment and material being loaded or unloaded into or out of trucks and trailers, and tailgates falling on feet and legs.
The landscape industry has experienced higher than average fatal and non-fatal statistics for a number of years in succession.
Overexertion and ‘Struck By’ Injuries
The most common causes of the injuries were overexertion and being struck by an object such as a falling tree limb or a piece of equipment.
“Overexertion is often closely related to heat stress, especially during the warm season,” Steel says. “Employers need to develop policies for reducing the potential for heat stress-related illness among employees.”
Despite overexertion being one of the most common causes, the rate of claims due to overexertion has been declining. This is thanks to improved lifting techniques and increased use of mechanized equipment.
As for the struck-by injuries, these are most often caused by flying debris from mowers and other lawn care equipment.
“Management must ensure that the eye protection equipment meets an ANSI Standard referred to as ANSI Z-87.1,” Steel says. “This provides peripheral and impact protection as well as a reduction in ultraviolet exposure.”
Another common source for struck-by injuries is tree work and involved ground crews being exposed to falling limbs and debris.
“In this scenario, durable headgear in the form of hard hats are a must, along with constant diligence and communications with, and by all crew members,” Steel says.
In the study, 34 percent of the 100 most expensive claims mentioned the word “tree,” “branch,” “wood,” “limb,” or “log.” These tree work related injuries ranged from falling from trees or bucket trucks, contact with power lines or tree parts falling on workers.
“Lowering these types of injuries is once again an area that needs hands-on training and experience, and the all-important crew manager enforcement of worksite procedures for all crew members,” Steel says.
Protecting Young and Newly-Hired Workers from Risk
The study also found that 50 percent of the serious injuries occurred to workers 34 years of age and younger, although the median age for workers in the landscape industry was 38.1 in 2011.
Injured workers were also highly likely to only have a brief tenure at their current job. Depending on the size of the company, 46 to 55 percent of all serious injuries occurred during the first year of tenure. Serious injuries that happened during the first 90 days of work ranged from 22 to 30 percent.
“One good method for protecting new hires is the adoption of a “buddy system” within the crew structure,” Steel says. “Reliable employees familiar with the work responsibilities and who adhere to all safety guidelines should be assigned to employees who have just come on board. With turn-over rates high in our industry, a buddy system throughout the season is one proactive step in reducing injuries and illnesses among workers unfamiliar with landscape work.”
Steel adds that new employees and those not used to manual labor need to be acclimated to warm weather and strenuous work to avoid overexertion injuries.
How to Improve
The landscape industry has experienced higher than average fatal and non-fatal statistics for a number of years in succession. Steel says the fact that workplace fatalities in the landscape industry are almost 4-5 times higher than the all-industry average translates into increased OSHA scrutiny.
“This may mean more targeted inspections by OSHA and enforcement actions that will increase the level of citations and fines for landscape firms,” he says.
Landscape owners should eliminate or limit exposure to occupational hazards. Where hazards cannot be eliminated, engineering controls such as safer equipment are the next most preferable option. These include safety features on tailgates, ramps and trailers like lifting assist, remote controls, and non-slip surfaces.
“Landscapers should ensure that they have identified and prioritized workplace hazards; establish and enforce safety policies and procedures within a written safety and health management program; conduct and document safety and health training that mitigates hazards; and consistently update their written program to deal with newly emerging hazards and risks,” Steel says.