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Safety Advice from the Best of the Best Award Winners

Having a safe company does not only mean fewer accidents and lower insurance and workers’ comp costs. Being a safe organization helps retain and attract the right people to your company.

“No one wants to come to work and have the risk of being injured,” says Paul Lutz, director of safety and fleet operations for Aspen Grove Landscape Group, LLC. “Landscaping can be extremely hazardous at times, and people and their families expect that we keep them safe from harm. It is very important to know you are valued and your number one need in life is taken care of, while in the line of duty: your health and safety.” Aspen Grove Landscape Group had five of its companies earn the Best of the Best Safety Award this year.

  • James River Grounds Management, Inc. – Glen Allen, Virginia
  • James River Grounds Management – Midlothian, Virginia
  • Reliable Property Services (corporate) – St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Reliable Property Services – Waunakee, Wisconsin
  • The Landscape Partners – Fort Worth, Texas

“These safety accolades provide an overwhelming sense of pride for the men and women of Aspen Grove,” Lutz says. “All the Aspen Grove Landscape teams have worked very hard to make safety the top influencer in all aspects of their operations. Personally, it is not the accolades or the prestige, it is about sleeping at night and knowing you did the right thing.”

The Best of the Best Safety Award is presented to landscaping companies who have maintained the Overall Safety Achievement award – Gold level status for three consecutive years. Lutz along with the other Best of the Best Safety Award winners for 2020 share some of the practices they implement to operate as safe companies year after year.

Most Effective Safety Policies

Robert Salas II, president of Pacific Federal Management, based in Tamon, Guam, says they create a culture of safety starting with onboarding.

“To further instill the culture of safety in the company we created a safety committee comprised of team members from all levels of the organization including field staff,” Salas says. “The safety committee is tasked with preparing together safety information and material for dissemination to the groups and brainstorming potential safety issues and solutions.”

Chris Testa, president of United Right-of-Way, based in Phoenix, Arizona, says training is paramount for them.

“Often people are hired based on experience levels,” Testa says. “We expect a person in the field to demonstrate their knowledge of equipment including vehicles and hand tools before they are just put on or assigned to lead a crew. If a new hire is considered entry-level, we work with that individual in steps to train them properly.”

Lutz says all of their safety policies are equally important but two, in particular, pave the way. One is a strict policy on incident reporting.

“This policy is plain and simple: you cannot over report, only under report,” Lutz says. “Our safety culture provides a positive environment in which to report unplanned events. This has enabled us to lower our exposure to these unplanned events by focusing resources on managing the event at the lowest level and preventing the chance of reoccurrence. Simply, we want to know what we do not know and we want to fix it!”

“Lead by example and give your team all the education and tools they need to be safe, not only for themselves but their team members and our clients. We constantly remind our team members they are no good to their families, themselves or the company if they are injured because they did not follow proper safety protocols.”

– Donald Mahoney Jr., owner and president of Mahoney Associates

Testa says they also document everything including “near misses” and potential hazards.

“When an incident does occur, the office is to be notified immediately and a check list is followed,” Testa says. “We have a written statement/report for the individual, the crew and immediate supervisor for each to complete. Those are reviewed by management and then discussed. If an employee simply writes down ‘I was not paying attention’ that is addressed, and we dig deeper and compare notes and speak to the employees involved so we all learn.”

Lutz says the second policy is the implementation of the five life safety rules, which are the top five things that could get someone hurt. These are cell phones, not wearing a seatbelt, unsafe driving, not using ROPS and tampering with intrinsic safeties on a machine.

“Our most effective policy is we have monthly meetings every month and we have a booklet that we go through that has a different thing to talk about safety for landscaping,” says Larry Craig, safety and quality control manager for Curby’s Lawn & Garden based in Olathe, Kansas.

Likewise, Tony Gile, general manager for Alliance Landscape Company, based in Fort Worth, Texas, says their weekly Tuesday morning safety meeting is their most productive policy. Every week they cover a safety topic or open discussion on potential safety issues.

Mahoney Associates, based in Southampton, New York, uses constant re-enforcement of company policies and procedures to help ensure team members are properly informed and trained when executing their daily tasks, according to owner and president, Donald Mahoney Jr.

Implementing Your Safety Plan Every Day

Making sure your crews are following safe practices every day can be a challenge, but these Best of the Best Award winners use a number of methods to ensure safety is top of mind each day. Gile says getting everyone involved and getting everyone to buy in to the safety culture is what ensures they are safe every day.

“We rely a lot on each team member looking out for the other,” Testa says. “That applies not only to the good, but also to the bad, meaning if a crew member is behaving in an unsafe manner, we expect someone to speak up and step up to lend a hand. If someone on that crew helps another out, we want to also hear about it. This could be verbal or a comment card.”

Lutz says Aspen Grove places a high level of trust in their teams. They verify that the proper precautions and safety measures are being taken by site audits, daily checklist procedures and compliance visits, but he says verification is not the secret ingredient.

“The secret to safety is having leadership empowered to be safe,” Lutz says. “Most of the safety incidents come back to a management failure of some kind, but we want our team to go home as safe and healthy as they arrived to work that day. This is cultivated by empowering our leadership and management levels by giving them the resources needed to accomplish safety.”

Salas says they have supervisors and leadmen trained on OSHA standards and they are responsible for conducting daily toolbox briefings that are specific to the jobsite and project.

“PFM also implements a monetary award and company-wide recognition system where ‘good catches’ are reported and used to develop future training efforts,” Salas says. “Everyone has a chance to submit a ‘good catch’ at any time, which creates a culture geared towards identifying and not hiding problems. The incentive system is created to empower all personnel to take part and contribute to the safety program on a daily basis.” 

Crystal Arlington, LIC, president of Affiliated Grounds Maintenance based in Lake City, Pennsylvania, says they have morning meetings and also request feedback from their customers, employees and foremen. She says she taps into sources like NALP for literature, books and current trainings. They also conduct a fair amount of video and hands-on training for safety.

“Always oversee hands-on training with a piece of equipment or vehicle or when somebody is backing up something for the first time,” Arlington says. “They should always have somebody there training them first.”

Craig says their crews check all the lights are working on their trucks are working before leaving in the morning. Similarly, at Mahoney Associates, their managers do a daily checklist prior to teams leaving the facility. Also, random spot checks are conducted to ensure employees are wearing and utilizing the proper PPE.

“We conduct daily equipment checks to include vehicles, trailers, and equipment,” Testa says. “The last thing we want to do is send a crew out in a truck with bad tires or with a piece of equipment missing safety guards. This is the responsibility of the driver or designated crew safety lead.”

Advice for Others

Here are some final takeaways these companies have to offer when it comes to operating as a safe company.

“Lead by example and give your team all the education and tools they need to be safe, not only for themselves but their team members and our clients,” Mahoney says. “We constantly remind our team members they are no good to their families, themselves or the company if they are injured because they did not follow proper safety protocols.”

Testa says companies need to develop a sound safety plan and follow it. It should also be updated or changed as you grow and take on different types of work.

“A safety plan that does not mention pesticides, but you are using them, is not a complete safety plan,” Testa says. “The same applies to changes in equipment and work areas. Look at your equipment. Is it old and run down, would you trust putting your family in a truck with bad tires? Keep up with maintenance and challenge your staff to respect the equipment and to look out for each other.”

Craig says they stress good housekeeping, which means keeping everything in its proper place. They also present their safety meetings in both English and Spanish. Arlington encourages providing employees with the safety guidelines, going over them and having them sign off on them. She also has employees sign in and out any time they do video or hands-on training.

“Always follow your state and city laws and regulations, be proactive not reactive,” Arlington says. “If you are doing the trainings and teaching the safety and being proactive, you won’t have to react when something bad happens. You can always ask another company for guidance. I always tell people to sign up for Trailblazer program.”

“We expect a person in the field to demonstrate their knowledge of equipment including vehicles and hand tools before they are just put on or assigned to lead a crew. If a new hire is considered entry-level, we work with that individual in steps to train them properly.”

– Chris Testa, president of United Right-of-Way

Lutz says the main thing is to focus on the basics and empower your people.

“You don’t need to be a trained safety expert to know that with a little education and some basic PPE, you can build the foundation of a successful safety program,” Lutz says. “Like a diet, you cannot be focused on the results, focus on the process, the results will come. Lastly, it is not about who did it, it is about who let it happen…Own it.”

Salas agrees with Lutz that the key is to empower your employees to take ownership of their safety program.

“Biggest factor in being a safe company is to have an open relationship with everyone on staff,” Gile says. “We talk about any situations that may be potential safety issues. Make sure all associates are comfortable to talk about situations that may become unsafe. Constant communication and feedback are very important.”

Editor’s Note: One Best of the Best award winner, Trio Outdoor Maintenance, based in Lenox, Michigan, was unavailable for this article.

This article was published in the Nov/Dec issue of the magazine.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the content manager for NALP.

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