Does Safety Slip During Growth Spurts?

Companies may take on several new employees in a short period of time for a number of reasons, including seasonal needs, storm work or a new contract. When this happens, what can be done to make sure safety is not compromised? File photo courtesy of Lewis Tree Services, Inc.

We’ve had this idea for an article for a while:

• Does safety slip during growth spurts?

• Does it fall to the wayside during periods of growth? Is that why small- to medium-sized companies have higher accident rates than the smallest and largest of companies?

• Do seasonal growth patterns affect safety trends?

But rather than ask a writer to produce an article, we wanted to try a new approach, that of putting the article together as a sort of roundtable discussion.

It involved sending the questions around to a handful of people in the industry and having each comment on both the questions and, if they wished, the comments made by the others.

We’ll start things off with Peter Gerstenberger, senior advisor for safety, compliance & standards for TCIA.

Peter Gerstenberger

Thirty-three years of observing what happens as companies grow has left me with the gut feeling there can be some growing pains around the point of having five to six field employees, especially in a strong economy or the aftermath of a weather event. In those times, employees are working long hours and hence have greater exposure, and they’re more inclined to take shortcuts.

The phenomenon is “retained responsibility for safety.” Up to this point, the boss has been on most if not all the jobs, personally directing the operation and supervising safety. Then there comes that moment when he or she is forced to split off a crew to work independently. Very often the boss takes someone who is technically competent and reliable, putting him or her in charge of this crew.

Guess what? The boss can’t be in two places at once to supervise. Without a clear delegation of that safety responsibility, and perhaps without some “soft skills” training on how to supervise, there could be problems on that second crew.

Kevin Myers

arborist training supervisor

ACRT Inc.

You may have heard the phrase, “You have to spend money to make money.” Safety can slip during company growth, especially if the employer is not willing to spend time and money on the selection and training of company leadership and new employees. The employer must trust the new leaders in the company, otherwise employee morale will begin to diminish and the growing pains will last longer. The new leadership must have a clear picture of what the new-hire training-and-development plan is, so the employer can be confident that new employees are aware of safe work practices and procedures.

Don’t wait for growth opportunities to begin the development of future leaders; start developing them now. Use seasonal growth as an opportunity to prepare potential leaders for long-term company growth, empowering them as safety and training stewards for your seasonal employees. Investing in safety training for seasonal employees will help prevent seasonal incidents and could create solid candidates for future full-time positions.

Dwayne Neustaeter

president, Arboriculture Canada

Training and Education Ltd.

Production or making money is often the reason why shortcuts are taken. Safety or working safely often is viewed as something that takes more time. This is a short-sighted focus, for, if or when an incident occurs, the costs typically exceed any gains that may have been made. There is a trend toward rewarding productivity, and if nothing bad happens, it gives an impression that the work practices must be safe. This problem is magnified when there is a lot of work to be done. Time of year also plays a part, particularly at the start of the season when money reserves are low for workers and employers.

The culture of an organization plays an important role. The attitude toward safety needs to be demonstrated at all levels of the organization, and production needs to be assessed in addition to safety. Workers and crews should be rewarded for being productive as well as for following safe work practices. Operating a chain saw one handed is a classic example. If this topic is debated or questioned by your employees, you can assume that the practice is taking place in the field. It is up to all levels of leadership to demonstrate in action and words that this is an unsafe practice. Safety slips are a result of what is observed. Much of tree work is learned by observation and experience, and if a commitment to safety is always demonstrated, then a culture of safety will prevail, even when the pressure to produce exists.

Investing in safety training for seasonal employees will help prevent incidents and could create solid candidates for future full-time positions. Here, Tim Walsh, CTSP, now corporate safety director with The Davey Tree Expert Company, leads an ASTI grant-funded chain saw safety workshop in this TCIA file photo.

Mark Chisholm

director of operations

Aspen Tree Expert Co.

Safety slips for many reasons as a company forms, develops and grows. One big issue I see is how the pressure to bring the money in takes priority in smaller companies. They often feel pinched by their lack of cash flow and struggle with the concept of becoming less efficient, even for something as simple as taking time once a week for a tailgate meeting. This, paired with the feeling that nothing bad will happen because it hasn’t so far, is a terrible mix.

Another possible factor is how the growing process from owner/operator to multiple crews requires that whoever is taking on the leadership role of the other crew(s) is as focused on safety as the owner most likely was. A lot of businesses in our industry start up when a very experienced arborist decides to finally go out on his or her own. They most likely have a great deal of experience and training and perform above average. When they pass the baton to their employees, there may be a lack of similar skills or focus.

Tony Tresselt

vice president training and curriculum

North American Training Solutions

As companies grow, there is a threshold where the older policies and procedures that worked for a few employees fail to keep pace with more team members, equipment and skill sets. While I would not call it an outright dismissal of safety and training, it is more that the old system is not designed to handle the new influx, so attention and involvement drop off . A strong safety culture can compensate for a while, but eventually even good culture cannot take the place of a strong program.

This makes it vital that even small companies should have regular, adhered-to systems in place for safety and training. Responsibility should be shared among a few individuals. This allows processes and systems to function even in the absence of the originators. As small companies grow and the owner-operator is pulled in many different directions, his or her role in the safety program must also change. Putting key people in place to pass the program on is important, and the owner’s role must change to one of support and vision, showing a “top-down” involvement in safety.

Just as a growing business must plan for economic, equipment and market-share growth, so too should its leaders envision a safety and training plan that fits current and future needs, with authority delegated to key people.

John Ball, Ph.D., BCMA, CTSP

professor of forestry

South Dakota State University

I will echo Peter’s (and some of the others’) comments, in that it’s often the two-crew company that has the incident. A one-crew company has the boss on the job most if not all the time, whereas the two-crew company has an employee managing the one. Sometimes there is a learning curve for a person going from crew member to crew leader, and this change in responsibilities may take a while to settle in.

The other issue is that the smaller the company, the less the time spent on training and the more on doing. A common theme in all high-risk professions is that training reduces incidents and saves lives. Too often we consider every day a training day, when in reality it is just about production. Every company, every crew, needs to dedicate time each month to practicing, maintaining and updating skills. The “forgetting curve” shows that basic skills often degrade after a few months, and it never hurts to review and practice the most basic skills of arboriculture.

Mike Tilford

director of general tree care

SavATree

Rapid growth in tree care companies can lead to safety issues quickly if proper preparations are not made. A company can find itself falling into a “be as safe as you can as long as it’s as fast as you can” culture, with inbred work habits and skill sets. In my observation, once a company has devolved into that position, getting back to safety as a priority is much more difficult than staying ahead of the curve.

An onslaught of seasonal or new hires due to growth can cripple an otherwise productive staff due to a lack of leadership and processes, and ultimately it can destroy the financial state of the company. Proactively building safety culture, developing training programs and ensuring the company infrastructure can support the growth of employees before a growth spurt is necessary.

The direct cost of a training day in wages, lost production revenue and potential fees for outside training sources can be intimidating to a business owner, while the downstream return on investment is difficult to measure. If one looks at the long-term costs associated with training a staff and developing leaders, it becomes evident that training and equipment are cheap compared to the backslide of safety that leads to complacency and ultimately to injuries and other incidents.

Rick Weden

vice president

Corcoran & Havlin Insurance Group

When a tree care company is in the process of hiring and bringing on additional work projects, they are not required to advise their insurer of these activities as they are happening. Later, when the insurance policies renew, the insurer will, of course, audit the policies. The insurer specifically looks at the insured’s Workers’ Compensation and General Liability, and will adjust their renewal premiums accordingly. In the event that a rise in claims occurs during the same period, possibly attributable to an increase in work force, then it is entirely possible that the insurer may, on top of the increases due to the audit, push for further premium increases due to claims activity. The combination of simultaneous increases due to audit and claims could result in large cost increases on the renewal immediately following these events.

The policies most susceptible to these kinds of changes would be General Liability and Business Auto policies. If the claims are work-related injuries (Workers’ Compensation), there could be further delayed increases, perhaps by as much as a year or so, as it can take that long for claims to hit the experience-rating formula of the Workers’ Compensation policy.

During periods of growth that involve increases in new hires, company owners also should be sure to verify and be vigilant with respect to driving records of new employees, gathering these and evaluating them at the time of hire. Owners can establish criteria for what they consider to be acceptable driving records for new and current employees. At renewal time, insurers always want to see updated driving records of all drivers, which will include any new hires that may have come on board during the prior year. If it turns out that any drivers have less-than-desirable driving records, these could impact not only auto premiums but also coverage terms, such as mandates from an insurer to exclude certain drivers from coverage due to poor driving records.

Would you be interested in contributing to this conversation? Email editor@tcia.org.

Do you have any ideas for a future discussion topic, or would you like to contribute to one? Email editor@tcia.org.

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