Published on 11/09/17

UGA training helps keep landscape, tree care workers safe

By Sharon Dowdy

Employee safety is a priority for most business owners, but time constraints, as well as language barriers, can make safety training more challenging for employees in Georgia’s green industry. To improve safety in Georgia’s landscape and tree care industries, the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture developed a training program that fits company schedules and uses materials designed for both English- and Spanish-speaking employees.

From 2012 to 2016, 64 people employed in the landscape industry in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi died as a result of workplace injuries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2016, the Tree Care Industry Association reported 153 incidents, 92 of which were fatal.

Since 2004, the center, based on the UGA Griffin campus, has received five Susan Harwood Training Grants from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Harwood grants fund education for workers and employers on the recognition, avoidance and prevention of safety and health hazards in the workplace.

“OSHA was struggling to find people to teach safety trainings in the landscape field,” said Alfredo Martinez, the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences plant pathologist who led the team that originally organized the training project. “Business owners are fined by OSHA when there is a safety incident and they have to pay the worker’s medical bills. They also experience a loss of time while the worker recuperates.”

Martinez said that the success of the UGA training program is tied to business owners seeing the value of educating their workers and building a reputation of being prevention-minded.

Using the OSHA funds, UGA experts prepared and delivered two- to six-hour safety training sessions. To date, these programs have reached more than 4,000 workers.

“Three-fourths of this workforce is Hispanic, so our priority has been to equip them. They are the backbone of this industry,” Martinez said.

Early on, the UGA training sessions focused on reducing equipment- and driving-related injuries and the misuse of pesticides. The trainings have since progressed to include safe use of tree care equipment, like chainsaws.

“Many tree care and landscape employees are temporary, seasonal workers. The workload is often heavy and these employees are busy, which can make it difficult for companies to get these employees safety training,” said Ellen Bauske, a program specialist with the center who now leads the project.

The UGA team hired instructors from North American Training Solutions to teach aspects of the safety training.

“We learned early on that tree care employees want to learn from someone who has run a saw for a living, not a UGA Extension employee,” Bauske said. “Of course, this makes the classes more effective because the workers are open to learning from their peers.” 

The UGA team developed “picture-rich” training materials, hands-on lessons and easy-to-read bilingual manuals.

“These employees are quick studies, but they don’t like to read and study a textbook. They want to see it, touch it and do it to learn,” she said. “And we have to take the classes to them.” 

Bauske says business owners support the training program, which is evident in the fact that employees attend classes during working hours while they are on the clock. Most of the companies who work with UGA for training purposes are small to midsized businesses. Larger companies employ their own training staffs, she said.

Workers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the UGA safety training sessions. Company owners are also trained. 

Newsletters with tips on chainsaw safety, traffic safety, personal protective equipment and more are also available for landscape business owners.

“The information in the newsletter is designed to be easy to share with the workers during a morning tailgate meeting,” Bauske said.

With the OSHA grant completed, the UGA trainings are now available online at no cost at Spanish and English versions of the “Safety for Hispanic Landscape Workers” manual are also available for purchase on the site.

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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