Safety isn’t always sexy.
It’s true. In your role as an advanced tree care professional, your attention is easily pulled away by new equipment or that next project pursuit. And safety initiatives – especially ones that feel comprehensive and time consuming to implement – can easily take a backseat to more lucrative and low-hanging fruit.
Yet, we all know creating a culture of safety is not only paramount but imperative to creating a successful business. We also know we’re nothing without our people. However, too many of us have experienced personal or professional tragedies that were entirely preventable. And, while research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm) is showing overall workplace incidents are decreasing, workplace fatalities are on the rise.
While we always want to prevent every incident, it’s not the “little” ones that are going to bite you. It’s the big ones – those Serious Injury/Fatality (SIF) events that can dramatically impact the lives of your employees and the health of your business. We all have a limited amount of time, effort and energy to pour into safety initiatives, so we need to move beyond traditional Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) metrics and focus on the elimination of these serious and life-altering events that are all too frequent in our industry.
The good news is that it’s not as daunting as you might think.
Look around for the best lessons
What I’ve learned since joining Arbor Masters is that effective solutions are all around us, and we can learn so much from what’s worked in other industries. I had the honor of presenting at the TCIA Executive Arborist Workshop in San Diego in August 2023, and I was a little surprised at how many attendees began their professional careers in outside industries, much like myself.
Andrea Starbird is a founding member of the Seattle Arborist Association, and she presented about that exact thing – the value that can come from other professionals outside of arboriculture. She talked about how those of us who are new to the industry can use those transferable skills to improve our businesses and the field as a whole.
This certainly resonated with me, as I think I might have been the least experienced “tree person” there. Not just presenting, but in the entire room! Yet, my background has enabled me to learn some valuable safety-related systems and processes that made me feel like I had something to contribute.
From my time spent in energy infrastructure and then manufacturing, I learned some key lessons in implementing a skill-based career-progression system and cause-analysis structure that has had a dramatic impact on worker safety. In my last role, I was responsible for all aspects of a newly constructed water-bottling plant, including manufacturing, distribution, quality assurance and more. From construction to more than five years of operation, we never had a recordable injury. Not one. And I give credit to this type of system and structure I’ve seen work time and time again.
Reduction in safety incidents
Arbor Masters is now the third company where we’ve implemented this system, and we’re already seeing a 30% reduction in safety incidents year over year. We’re expecting similar improvement going into next year. Even more exciting is that we’ve only been able to implement about 75% of the program so far, but we’re already seeing the difference it can make.
By establishing a system that outlines how you can interview and hire for safety, how you can drive accountability for safety performance and how you can incorporate safety into your vision for your company, you can bring together all these aspects to create a stronger overall safety culture.
Make safety non-negotiable
For us, the foundation of that culture can be found in our core values. Arbor Masters has five values that serve as the cultural foundation for our business. These values are not priorities, because priorities can change. Core values can never be compromised, not for comfort or for profit, and they serve as a guide for making decisions at all levels. One of Arbor Masters’ core values is safety.
One of the primary mechanisms we use to foster our value of safety is our career-progression system – an objective set of skills an employee must learn, not only to earn the right to get up in the tree in the first place, but also to be promoted and ascend into a leadership position. The safe performance of daily tasks is baked into that progression system. Simply put, how much you grow in your role, get promoted and even stay employed depends heavily on how safe you are day in and day out.
We had a Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA) and some of our most knowledgeable operations experts create our program. I know many other successful tree care companies also have a program in place, and TCIA published a Career Pathways program in the past few months that’s very similar.
(TCIA.org/education/arborist-apprenticeship-program) These types of programs are not a secret; the key is finding a way to consistently execute them over time.
That criterion is especially important in technical industries such as ours, where it’s easy to promote the most technically proficient teammates into positions of leadership. After all, their technical ability certainly makes them great candidates, but we can’t forget to deliberately train their leadership skills as well. Leading is a skill set just like any other, and one that can be taught to a certain extent.
Outlining a career path
This kind of career-progression system is also invaluable when it comes to recruitment and retention. When somebody interviews at Arbor Masters, we can lay out the path for how they can get to where they want to go – from an entry-level tree care worker to a climber specialist three, etc. Basically, “This is how you can become an expert in your field. This is how long it’s going to take. This is what you’re going to need to learn along the way.”
When you can lay out a career path that is well defined, your candidates can see themselves working at your company for a long time. And when you combine that with values-based hiring, you attract those candidates who want to work for a company that places that much stock in safety and in their people. It makes us especially successful at recruitment and retention.
Lead with listening
Another system we’ve implemented recently that’s been a big differentiator for us is our incident-investigation-and-cause-analysis process. We use what’s called the “systematic cause analysis technique,” or SCAT.
This approach employs the theory of multiple causes:
- Every incident has at least one (often more) direct cause.
- Every direct cause has at least one (often more) root cause.
- Every root cause has at least one (often more) corrective action.
If you can effectively determine those causes and implement corrective actions after an incident – and then communicate them across your company – you only have to learn a hard lesson one time.
Of course, we all have those near misses, those unsafe acts, unsafe conditions – the “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God” type of incidents that don’t have any consequence. That’s where you must have a trusting, consequence-free environment, where your tree care professionals can feel comfortable raising their hands to say, “I screwed up” and “What can I do to improve?” That open communication gives us the opportunity to learn all the lessons from an incident without anyone suffering an injury.
Auditing and Job Evaluations
Auditing and job evaluations are important, of course, but you never want to be just a cop. Les Day, safety director for Mountain F. Enterprises, also spoke at the workshop. He emphasized that, as business owners, we’re responsible not only for providing those tools to enhance safety culture – including the procedures, training, audits and incident response – but also the culture creation. It’s the message you deliver to the people doing the work that saves lives and prevents fatalities. Only then can a safety culture become automatic and second nature for your employees.
It all starts with leadership. Our branch managers do a phenomenal job of creating that type of environment, which allows everyone to feel empowered to share – because they want to make us better and prevent future incidents. By showing your employees you’re there to help, through creating a culture where everyone feels comfortable speaking up, you ultimately build a safer workplace.
Create a culture that saves lives
It’s been a long summer. We’re a seasonal business, and these climbers have been working extremely hard for months. Sometimes it feels a lot easier to make an unsafe cut rather than reposition yourself for a safer cut. And the more tired you are, the more appealing that becomes. It’s precisely at that point, when you’re fatigued and tired, that a culture of safety truly matters.
Safety harnesses, chain-saw chaps, impact-control gloves – the best PPE will only get you so far if you don’t have a foundational safety culture in place. It all comes down to leadership and the consistent execution of the right processes over and over (and over) again. It’s baking that culture into everything you do, from your core values to your safety talks, from regular training to how your leaders address employee feedback. Too many companies start something with the best intentions, but at the first sign of stress, it falls by the wayside. The secret sauce? Just sticking with it.
Implementing these types of systems and processes takes work and commitment. But if we learn from the success of others – no matter the industry – we can elevate our work and better care for our people. And that makes it all worth it.
About This Series
This is the second of a series of articles aimed at small-business owners planned for TCI Magazine during the next 12 months. The first article, “Marketing Strategy vs. Marketing Plan: The How and Why of Successful Marketing,” ran in the September 2023 issue. We plan to address human resources, outsourcing, sales, office operations, cash flow, taxes and other issues. If you have a topic you would like to see covered, email us with your ideas at email@example.com.
Pat Turley is president of Arbor Masters, an accredited, 22-year TCIA member company based in Shawnee, Kansas.