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Snow customers list safety before price when hiring a contractor: SIMA speaker

Being a safe contractor will open more doors than being low priced

May 8, 2023  By  Mike Jiggens


Plow operators must not reach the point of exhaustion when tackling such big jobs as parking lots. Photo: © Christian Delbert/Adobe Stock

Safety is one aspect of snow and ice management that has improved over the years, an industry training services official says, and it’s something that commercial property managers tend to consider above price when hiring a contractor. 

Matt Gerich, vice-president of training services for Business Resources One, based in Farmington, Mich., said safety once ranked seventh or eighth on a property manager’s list of concerns, but has since risen to the second or third spot in recent years.

Speaking at a fall Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA) webinar, he said his company’s clients don’t even ask the price for snow and ice services until the second, third or fourth meeting because they first wish to know about the contractor’s safety scores and procedures. Most larger companies are thinking about safety above everything else, he added.

“As a snow and ice professional, what you really want to do is you want to differentiate yourself,” Gerich said. “If you’re looked at as a safe vendor or safe contractor, that’s probably going to open more doors for you than just being a low-priced operator.”

Contractors need to question themselves about the safety of their winter operations, he said, adding all risks start with exposure.

“As soon as we walk out the door and as soon as we send people out to job sites, exposure begins.”

The key is to limit the number of exposures, Gerich said, so that they can be better understood. 

The first exposure is visual. A sidewalk might look clear but may have enough snow cover to cause someone to slip and fall. An individual might walk down the sidewalk and assume it was safe because he didn’t see a hazard. That is an example of risk behaviour, Gerich said.

“By seeing the hazard, that’s the first leg. You don’t see something coming, you’re automatically taking a risk.”

If someone sees a hazard but doesn’t understand it, it is considered at-risk behaviour. Risk equals hazard times exposure, Gerich said.

Using another example to illustrate at-risk behaviour, he imagined a man wishing to swim in the ocean. The man sees the dorsal fin of a fish above the water’s surface and figures it might be fun to swim among the fish. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand the risk involved and later realized that the fish was a shark.

“He saw the risk but didn’t understand it. If you see the hazard and understand the hazard, but do it anyway, it will be at-risk behaviour.”

Using a snow and ice example, Gerich said a salt truck operator might overload his vehicle’s carrying capacity of 10,000 pounds. By factoring in the weight of the front-mounted plow, the weight of the spreader and salt and the weight of himself and his gear, he may have exceeded the rated capacity by 2,500 pounds.

“He’s taken a 10,000-pound carrying capacity and overloaded it to 12,500 pounds. He sees the hazard and understands it but decides to proceed anyway. That’s at-risk behaviour.”

The operator has overloaded his vehicle which has changed its dynamics, and he might be thinking, “The braking isn’t going to be the same because I’ve overloaded it. The handling’s not going to be the same. When I go to make a turn, I hope that it’s stable and doesn’t tip over. These are risky behaviours I’ve identified and am good with, but it’s probably going to cost me somewhere down the road.”

Understand risks ahead of time
Cold stress is another example of the need to understand risks ahead of time. Occupational safety and health agencies have recognized such risk factors as working in wet or damp environments, wearing clothing that is inappropriate for the temperature, being in poor physical condition, being physically exhausted and having a predisposed medical condition such as hypertension, hypothyroidism or diabetes.

Gerich said if someone isn’t dressed properly for outdoor work and must warm up or dry out inside a truck’s cab, another team member will be forced to step in and complete his fellow employee’s work.

Those who aren’t in good physical condition should have close at hand such items as protein bars, non-sugary drinks and fruit. 

“If they’re not in great shape, this might help them get into shape because they start eating right and appropriately for the workload they’ll be looking at.”

Physical exhaustion can be prevented through better scheduling, Gerich said, adding the days of working upwards of 30 hours at a time should be long over.

“Who would want that job? People need rest. There’s no way around that.”

Gerich said that having employees work long hours sets them up to become fatigued and make critical mistakes.

“Can you imagine a loader operator with a 16-foot box going through a parking lot without having had significant rest?”

When physically exhausted employees are operating heavy machinery, mistakes are bound to happen and the risk factor is automatic, Gerich said.

Hiring practices have changed over the years, and prospective employees can no longer be asked certain questions. They can be told, however, that a job is physically demanding and asked if there is anything that might prevent them from working a full eight or 10-hour shift. It’s good information to know, he said, especially if the last couple of hours prove to be challenging.

“If we know there’s an issue, we can plan for it and we can schedule for it and make sure we don’t put people at risk.”

Carefully choose your work
There are several layers of safety to consider, Gerich said. If a contractor’s usual clientele is condominium or homeowners’ association properties, and he has the chance to take on new work at a large office park, he is apt to be adding to his risk and hazard scenario. He may be accepting work for which he’s not accustomed, with bigger spaces, higher traffic volumes and more pedestrians. By taking on a partner who has experience working with larger properties, the contractor establishes a safeguard to help protect his reputation in the event of a bad setback.

Gerich cautioned against taking on new work at sites where different contractors are hired each year. A red flag goes up and the contractor is left asking questions.

“Is it the site, the owner, the manager? What’s important is you limit your exposure, limit your risk and find out what’s going on there.”

The contract might be a six-figure account, but the contractor must consider how his company and employees are being exposed at a site that seems to have no staying power, Gerich said.

“Talk to the previous years’ contractors,” he suggested, adding it’s not a matter of tapping into their trade secrets, but simply looking out for one another.

A contractor’s employees are usually the first ones to arrive at a job site that has yet to be cleared of snow and ice. If they’re not wearing proper footwear for the job, they’re going to slip and fall. Gerich said companies can’t afford to have employees injured and out of work, especially with today’s labour shortages.

“Something as simple as having proper footwear can make all the difference in the world.”

Footwear companies will often visit a contractor’s business to outfit employees with quality boots. Gerich said buying boots in bulk could potentially lower the price per pair by a significant amount, and the end cost could be shared between the contractor and employee.

Pre-season site checks should include such things as the presence of electrical cords, including those frequently draped across sidewalks to power holiday decorations or electric vehicles. Four to six inches of snow will cover cords, rendering them invisible when clearing snow.

Contractors must be on the lookout for other safety hazards at a job site. Structures such as awnings at office buildings or hospital entrances may not be tall enough to allow a truck to get underneath, putting them at risk of being torn. Rusted light poles should be reported to the client to prevent a possible safety violation.

Gerich said looking up is as important as looking down during site inspections. Leaking gutters, for example, can produce ice patches on the ground that contribute to slip-and-fall accidents. If such things are detected during the pre-season, the client has the time to make repairs to prevent a major catastrophe.

This article is part of the Snow & Ice Week.
This article is part of the Fall & Winter Prep Week Week.

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