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Serpico Landscaping Shares How They Are Staying Safe and Operating Lean

Like other landscaping companies currently operating during the pandemic, Serpico Landscaping has rolled out a number of operational practices to keep crews and clients safe.

From deep cleaning their facilities and equipment every day to providing masks and gloves for all employees, Serpico says they’re taking COVID-19 safety precautions seriously.

While many companies have implemented staggered start times for the time being, this Hayward, California-based company is one of the businesses that plans to keep this practice moving forward. Depending on the size of each branch locations, there are three or four waves leaving in the morning starting at 6:30 a.m.

President Peter Novak says each wave has 10 employees or less and crews return at staggered times as well with the last crews typically returning by 3:30 p.m.

Staggered start times has helped managers ensure they have conveyed their message clearly to smaller groups of employees. Photo: Serpico Landscaping

“The staggered start time has really been key for us because that allows us to manage everybody to make sure they’re properly distanced and with only 10 employees there at a time, we can make sure all the PPE is really tight all the time and everybody’s complying and we can have a six-foot apart socially distance,” Novak says.

Novak says his company originally looked at staggered start times a year and half ago but was only considered having two waves. “There’s a lot of benefits with the smaller group,” Novak says. “You have a greater span of control from the management level to get them the information that they need to get and to make sure that each employee understands whatever was discussed at the tailgate that morning, whatever the safety topic is, whatever the announcement is and you only have to make sure 10 people get a message versus 50 people or 40 people.”

Novak says it also gives the managers more opportunities to talk to their employees one-on-one.

“In a lot of ways our managers are feeling like they can give some extra attention directly to their staff that maybe needs help or needs guidance or needs to know some information for that day.”

Employee Attitudes and Managing Public Perception

Novak says the general attitude from the staff right now is an eagerness to get back to work. “They’re happy to be working but at the same time they are very well aware that they need to be careful for their own safety and others,” he says.
 
Novak says they’ve had some employees think they are indestructible and have chosen to not follow the social distancing and PPE guidelines.

Aside from quality checks, managers are also making sure employees are wearing their masks out on the jobsite. Photo: Serpico Landscaping

“Another part of what we’re doing is our managers are now, in addition to managing quality as they always have, they’re also tasked with getting out there and auditing in the field to make sure people are staying distanced, working in solitude and wearing the PPE that policy say they’re supposed to be wearing,” Novak says. “We’ve caught a few people not following the policy.”

Novak says this is a feedback and follow up situation with serious implications. He says they’ve actually lost a couple of employees because they decided they did not want to follow the PPE requirements.

“We had subsequent followup feedback counseling sessions with them, and they decided that they didn’t want to comply with that all the time so we had to make the decision to allow them to leave,” he says.  

While the majority of the landscape companies are following best practices for preventing the spread of COVID-19, there are some individuals operating without following COVID-19 safety standards.

Novak says on one occasion the county thought one of their employees was not following the mask requirements.

“They called me and come to find out it wasn’t our any of our people it was some Chuck in a truck guy,” Novak says. “Certainly, that’s happening and they’re out there but thankfully, our customers don’t necessarily associate us with some of the other bad behavior that they’ve seen.”

Heat Concerns

During a normal year, heat safety awareness is a top safety topic for Serpico so with the new requirement to wear masks Novak says there is a lot of concern about employees getting overheated.

“Obviously breathing through a mask is difficult, there’s extra humidity, there’s extra heat, you’ve got something wrapped around your face,” he says. “It becomes harder to cool down so definitely we’re looking at that as something that is another challenge in us managing our heat safety program.”

Novak says they’ve been actively looking for masks that have a better cooling factor to them and less heat retention.

Trucks are equipped with enough water for crews before departing for the day.
Photo: Serpico Landscaping

“We put a lot of effort and resources into making sure that all of our employees and everybody in the field is highly sensitive around the topic of heat stroke and and heat safety awareness,” Novak says.

Managers all have the OSHA Heat Safety Tool app on their phones to know what the heat index is for where they are or where they may be going that day. They pay special attention to the heat index when temperatures go above 80 degrees or if it is a particularly sunny or humid day. Novak says part of their policy is to follow up with every single crew every day they have higher temperatures.

“That’s check ins, that’s phone calls with foreman making sure shade breaks are being taken with extra ones throughout the day,” Novak says. “There is also a water availability check that our managers do on every crew truck to make sure that they roll out in the morning, fully stocked with drinking water enough for all crew members, and that they also replenish that water at some point throughout the day when they have access to a water source,”

Running Lean

While Novak says the systems that they had built to support the idea of operating lean came through for them when the pandemic struck, it’s not to late to use this time to reevaluate some of your own operations. Novak advises looking at different departments within your company and analyzing specific business processes that have a lot of non-productive time involved. He says majority of the time owners are already aware of the areas that they could fine-tune to achieve productivity gains, it’s more about going through with it.

“That takes isolating what the issue at hand is and that takes also the courage to do something different, where you don’t necessarily know what the outcome will be,” Novak says.

He says a major gain they’ve experienced is streamlining their back-office and taking advantage of the technology available.

“The more you can slim and trim and be lean, mean and green when it comes to the back end of the work, the better your margins are going be and the more cash you’re going be able to keep,” he says.

Another area Novak suggests looking at to maximize productivity is fueling. Rather than having crews stopping at gas stations, some other solutions is to have assigned employees handle refueling in the evening or to have a third-party vendor come and deliver fuel.

Jill Odom

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