NIOSH releases new fact sheet to help reduce accidents

In Puerto Rico, a landscape worker was riding in the cargo compartment of a pickup truck when he fell from the moving vehicle to the pavement. He hit his head, lost consciousness and died at the hospital four days later.

In Florida, a landscape company employee was removing a large tree limb that had fallen onto the roof of a building during a storm. The limb, which was partially hanging off the roof, suddenly seesawed and knocked the employee to the ground. He fell approximately 17 feet, hit his head on the concrete sidewalk and died instantly.

And, in North Carolina, several workers were holding onto ropes and pulling on a tree that was in the process of being cut down. One worker jumped down an embankment to get away from the falling tree, but misjudged its length. The tree struck him in the head, and he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Photo Courtesy of Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping
Safety reminders such as these posted on the gate at Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping in Portland, Ore., reinforce the importance of staying safe while on the road.

Transportation incidents, falls to lower levels, and being struck by falling objects are among the most common ways workers in the landscape services industry are dying on the job. Yet, most occupational fatalities are preventable.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently developed a new fact sheet titled “Traumatic Injury Fatalities Among Landscape Services Workers” (NIOSH Publication No. 2008-144). The fact sheet, available in both English and Spanish, details how workers in the industry are most commonly dying on the job. The fact sheet also lists numerous free materials available to company owners, supervisors and other employees aimed at reducing the risk of a job-related fatality. (Visit NIOSH’s Web site at www.cdc.gov/niosh for more information.) A second English and Spanish fact sheet entitled “Nonfatal Traumatic Injuries Among Landscape Services Workers” is also under development.

“Without question, even one employee fatality will have a devastating effect on a company,” says David Snodgrass, president of Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping in Portland, Ore., and a member of the stakeholder group that is providing input to NIOSH’s Traumatic Injury Prevention for Landscape Workers project.

“If you have a fatality, you’re going to have guilt, because the reality is that fatality could have been prevented. That’s huge, because it will impact you the rest of your life. It will affect the morale of your whole company. There are business interruptions, too. Think about all of the energy that’s going to go into the remorse, the guilt, and all of the talking about it. It is a total distraction to business,” Snodgrass says.

The statistics

The new NIOSH fact sheet notes that landscape maintenance and groundskeeping workers numbered slightly more than one million in the United States in 2006. This is less than 1 percent of the total U.S. work force. Yet, 3.5 percent of all occupational fatalities occur among these workers.

The landscape services industry includes landscape installation, maintenance, lawn care, tree trimming and removal, snow removal, and ornamental shrub installation and pruning. The majority of landscape services companies are small businesses. In 2006, 42 percent of landscape services workers were Hispanic/Latino, compared to 16 percent of the total U.S. work force.

The NIOSH fact sheet draws upon statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. The BLS identified 789 traumatic injury fatalities among landscape services workers and their first-line supervisors between 2003 and 2006. In each of those years, 25 percent to 30 percent of the deaths occurred among the self-employed.

The fact sheet also notes:

• Transportation incidents are the leading cause of occupational fatalities among landscape services workers. Yet, 33 percent of landscape worker fatalities from 2003 to 2006 were due to transportation incidents, compared to 43 percent for all U.S. industries.

• During that same four-year period, landscape services workers were more likely to die as a result of falls to lower levels, being struck by falling objects or electrocutions (22 percent, 17 percent and 9.8 percent respectively) than U.S. workers overall (14 percent, 6.3 percent and 4.4 percent respectively).

A close look at the BLS fatality data for landscape services workers from 2003 to 2006 shows that vehicles were the primary source of fatal injuries in 188 cases. Tree trimming and removal activities were not far behind. Trees and logs were listed as the primary source of fatal injuries in 152 cases during that same four-year period. The NIOSH fact sheet notes that it is not clear whether these tree trimming and removal-related deaths occurred among employees of tree care companies or other landscape services companies.

The BLS data also shows that machinery, including riding mowers, tractors and loaders, was a primary source of fatal injuries that occurred to landscape services workers during that four-year period.

Photo Courtesy of Images Of Green, Inc.
Ensuring that your workers buckle up before leaving a job site will reduce their risk of a fatality or traumatic injury on the road.

Getting back to the basics

Snodgrass notes that companies in the landscape services industry are “companies on wheels. Our employees are transporting materials and equipment [to job sites]. Just the fact that we’re on the road adds a high element of risk.”

Maureen Scheitz, vice president of human resources at the Acres Group in Wauconda, Ill., who also sits on the stakeholder group for the NIOSH project, says she believes effectively communicating the importance of safety to crew leaders and other supervisors is a key to reducing fatalities and other traumatic injuries.

“Part of the issue with our production managers is production,” Scheitz says. “We need to get them to understand that safety plus production equals profits for the company. Studies show that what is most important in influencing the behavior of our field employees is how our managers interact with them.”

Both Snodgrass and Scheitz say it’s important to get back to the basics when communicating safety to workers. “Use simple, short, frequent communications about safety. Teach, don’t preach,” Scheitz suggests. “Do short, simple, weekly tailgate sessions. If they’re developed by the managers, there will be more buy-in, versus administrative staff putting together all of the topics.”

Supervisors also need to “live” safety, she adds. “They need to constantly be in the teaching mode and constantly check the behaviors they are seeing.”

Snodgrass believes it’s important for company owners to “shift their attitude around safety so safety is part of every task every day.

“Rather than being an afterthought, it has to be attached to a high level of importance. Put safety on every agenda; just having it there sends a message. Take action on every incident, including near misses. You need to correct those risky situations so they don’t become accidents.”

Here are some more tips on how to get back to the basics and reduce the risk of traumatic injuries and fatalities at your operation:

• Make use of all available resources. “Use the new NIOSH fact sheet in the communications systems that exist within your company, whether this is at tailgate meetings, other safety meetings or safety committee meetings,” Scheitz says. “This is a good discussion piece; it’s another learning tool.” Also, make use of the other free resources that are listed in the fact sheet, such as the Professional Landcare Network’s (PLANET) Safety Programs Web page (www.LandcareNetwork.org/cms/programs/safety.html), which includes information on the STARS (Safety Training Achieves Remarkable Success) Safe Company Program; and the OSHA-PLANET Alliance Safety & Health Topics: Landscape and Horticultural Services Web page (www.osha.gov/SLTC/landscaping/index.html).

• Repeat, repeat, repeat. Short, frequent, five to 10-minute, tailgate safety sessions with just one topic per session are an excellent way to train. Don’t be afraid to repeat such topics as defensive driving, fall prevention and proper lifting to keep safe practices in the forefront of your workers’ minds.

• Train orally, and in a manner your workers will understand. This is especially critical with workers from such countries as Mexico, where opportunities for schooling are limited. Always take your workers’ literacy levels into account when you train, and make sure you have a good understanding of their cultures, since certain cultural issues may inhibit effective communication of your safety messages.

A traumatic injury or fatality, Scheitz notes, will “cost the bottom line of your company” in potential workers’ compensation claims, OSHA violations and penalties and lost time. “Especially at smaller companies, if there is a severe injury or death, you are looking at devastating the company,” she says.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based freelance writer who specializes in safety and health issues.