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Landscaping safety begins with education, awareness


April 30, 2015
By Mike Jiggens

Education and awareness are the cornerstones to injury prevention in the lawn and landscaping industry, an audience of lawn care professionals was told in March.

Workplace Safety and Prevention Services’ (WSPS) Dean Anderson, speaking at a Nutrite-sponsored forum in Guelph, said that, statistically, landscaping is a sector of the Ontario workplace which sees few fatalities, but accidents can and do occur when education and awareness are lacking.

“Part of our (WSPS) role is education and awareness,” he said, noting the agency is neither a wing of either the Ministry of Labour nor the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

Anderson, who has been working in agricultural health and safety for more than 15 years, said the WSPS’ intent is that employees of their clientele return home at the end of the work day as safe and secure as when they arrived.

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“Then we know we’ve had a good day in the province.”

Statistically, the most significant risk to the lawn and landscape industry are motor vehicle accidents which tend to occur when a truck is travelling to or leaving a job site.

“Distracted driving is probably one of the biggest issues.”

One’s driving habits is something a lawn care professional must address with his employees, noting what the company policy is with regard to hands-free operations.

Anderson said another key concern within the lawn care and landscaping industry is the potential for electrocution. When employees are pruning trees or putting up Christmas lights, they must be wary of overhead power lines.

Entanglement in power machinery can also contribute to serious injury or death.

“Those are the type of things you need to be aware of from a fatality standpoint.”

Injuries such as muscle disorders or strains and sprains, usually caused by repetitive motion, awkward positioning or overexertion, can be prevented or reduced through simple means of common sense, Anderson said.

“Those things tend to cause injuries to back and lower limbs. Some of those things can be alleviated by doing proper stretching and warming up and those kind of things.”

Employers must train their workers to adopt safe lifting techniques to prevent back strain, he said. When an employee puts his back or knee out, he is often off the job for a longer than average period of time. When he does return, he’s coming back to the same thing.

“We tend to be worse at getting back to the job with those kind of injuries than a lot of other sectors.”

Within the lawn and landscaping sector, there is a tendency for employees to be working on uneven surfaces which can lead to slips, trips and falls, resulting in cuts, major bruises and often broken bones.

“When you’re working on uneven ground, make sure people have the proper footwear. Having that rate as part of your policy is a good way of going.”

The cost of workplace injuries aren’t just related to the costs of hospitalization or compensation, Anderson said. He added, however, the landscaping industry has been doing well in this regard over the past 10 to 15 years. Compensation costs used to be about $10 a hundred, but are now at about $4 a hundred.

“That’s because the sector has gotten better.”

Other costs to the employer might include broken pieces of machinery incurred by an injury which may not be repaired or replaced for a week. During that period, the employer will have to address the absence of that piece of machinery to his fleet and may have to hire a temporary replacement for his injured worker while he recovers. The new employee will have to be properly trained, adding to the costs already associated with the injury.

Anderson admitted a good health and safety program can cost a lot of money, but it can prove to be cost-effective in the long run.

“On average, they say a good health and safety plan for every dollar invested you get $4 to $6 back. Most of that is through efficiency—things that don’t slow you down at some point in time because of an incident.”

Due to the seasonal nature of the lawn and landscaping industry, training is of the utmost importance, Anderson said. When someone is trained how to properly plant a tree, for example, it’s done because the employer doesn’t want a callback from the customer.

“You want to make sure that tree is growing at the end of the summer and in fact next spring.”

At the same time, he added, the employee should be trained to properly lift a root ball and to prune. Safety should be part of a training program for tree planting, not something that is a separate matter.

“If you plant the tree right, you don’t get a callback. If you’re planting the tree right using the right lifting and ergonomics, you don’t end up with a worker who slows down or who ends up going off the job for a couple of weeks because they’ve injured themselves.”

It is the supervisor, Anderson said, who is responsible in the field for quality control. If he sees something is amiss, he must step in and say, “You’re not bending at the knees.”

This makes supervisor training especially important, he said.

Anderson said mandatory awareness training has been legislated by the province. The legislation states every workplace in Ontario was to have conducted mandatory worker training and mandatory supervisor training last year by July. He said many workplaces didn’t bother to do so, but suspects about 85 per cent of them did, albeit not consciously.

The mandatory awareness training states that if a worker doesn’t understand an aspect of safety, he has the responsibility to ask his employer how to do the job properly or how to feel safer doing it. He has the right to refuse the work until he has been properly trained.

Issues occur whenever short cuts are taken and safety procedures aren’t followed, Anderson said, noting the right tools are available. Companies planning to hire students for the summer can take advantage of online training. For owners and supervisors, it is recommended they do the supervisor section which can be done online for free through the Ministry of Labour. The session takes about 40 minutes to complete.

Anderson said due diligence is perhaps the most difficult part for a small business. There is a paper trail involved, and employers need to find a simple way to keep track of their training records and what areas they’ve trained their employees.
“That’s the way to cover your behind in case anything does happen.”

The Ministry of Labour tends to be reactive to issues and doesn’t “go around the countryside” to ask businesses to produce their training records, Anderson said. There are only 440 inspectors in Ontario yet there are more than a quarter of a million workplaces. About 80 to 85 per cent of inspectors’ work involves visits to workplaces where they have been called in response to an incident, a fatality of a complaint.

“Safety is really about culture, and culture starts with your owner and supervisors. You can’t just say be safe and then do something different.”

It is vital that everyone in the workplace follow set rules, he said.

“I always say start off with the rules on the first day and be really hard in the first week.”

He said, for example, if a rule states employees must wear steel-toed shoes and an employee shows up to work wearing running shoes, he should be sent home and warned that if it happens again, he may need to be replaced. If people understand the extent of the rules during the first week, they will understand how the workplace goes, he said.

Things have changed significantly over the past 15 years in safety among landscape maintenance employees. Few before then wore hearing protection while operating noisy machinery. Hearing impairment is especially costly because it impacts a person for his entire life. Anderson said feeding time at a turkey farm, for example, produces more decibels than that of a jet engine. Such intensity can cause severe hearing loss.

A supervisor is responsible for identifying  hazards and risks as they occur and to be able to help mitigate those problems.
Incidents aren’t confined to a job site. Many can happen at the home shop such as a trip or fall.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but those low level falls are actually worse than falls from heights because often you hit a bench or the side of a trailer or the back of a pickup truck with your head.”

A worker can better protect himself through measures of common sense such as wearing proper attire to shield himself against the sun and warming up and stretching before embarking on a job.

“It helps you from pulling things and hurting yourself.”

Communication must be encouraged at all times, Anderson said. If one notices something is broken or needs to be replaced or is due for maintenance, he should speak up. Otherwise, another employee might get on that machine the following day and discover it doesn’t work properly. Many things can go wrong when people don’t communicate with one another, he added.

Horseplay on the job or at the home shop should be forbidden, he said, because it can lead to needless injury. Injury due to horseplay won’t be covered by WSIB, meaning the injured employee won’t receive any coverage or benefits from it. Anderson said it is the supervisor’s job to step in and curtail horseplay when he sees it, suggesting other employees tend not to do anything about it.

New workers must go through the various safety points, hazard points and pinch points, Anderson said, adding a new worker is defined as someone who hasn’t performed a particular job in about four months. Even if he did a particular job all season the previous year, he is considered new for about the first four months on the job.

“We have about a four times higher rate of incidents with new workers, so that’s a problem in a business that’s seasonal.”
When demonstrating a particular job to an employee, Anderson suggested it be done slowly the first time and then repeated. Afterwards the employer needs to pose questions to the employee. He said never to ask someone, “Have you got it?” They will invariably say “yes” and then do the job wrong. He suggested the employee be watched and then corrected if he’s doing it wrong. If an employer or supervisor can stop something from becoming a bad habit within the first five to 10 times something is done, “it won’t become a bad habit.”

A good supervisor will also ensure bad habits don’t sneak in two or three weeks later. Hazards should always be pointed out on an ongoing basis.

“If there’s something you know that’s inherently dangerous about whatever tool they’re using, point those things out to them.”

Such matters should be discussed with the employee, Anderson said, adding the employer cannot simply say, “Don’t do that.”
Usually, the owner is busy with matters of a business standpoint such as lining up new jobs, ordering materials and doing checkups, leaving much of the responsibility in the hands of supervisors.

“The supervisors are the keys to the way things are being done in the field.”

First aid training is key, and at least one individual on a work crew should be trained accordingly, Anderson said.
“That first hour, if it’s a critical type of injury, is important.”

If the one employee who knows first aid is back at the shop—and so is the first aid kit—everything begins to unravel downwards.

In landscaping, work tends not to be done alone, but a “work alone” policy should be enacted if one doesn’t have a support crew.

Anderson said an employer can best protect himself from liability if he practises due diligence, keeps records and has them easily accessible. If the employer finds himself in a courtroom and is able to provide access to when things were done, that’s usually good enough for a judge, he said. If an employer doesn’t have such documentation readily available and is confronted by an injured worker, it becomes one’s word against the other.

“It’s up to you to prove that you took every reasonable precaution to protect that worker.”

WSPS is a full-service occupational health and safety organization. The agency conducts training daily.