Avoid hazards

June 1, 2004 -  By

By: Barbara Mulhern

Matt Kling vividly remembers the time he and another landscaper were unloading plants off the back of a truck at a private residence. The truck was parked on a hill. Kling was in the truck setting the plants on the end gate, and his helper was grabbing them and setting them off to the side. An unattended Bobcat was parked uphill from the truck.

“Another worker decided to use the Bobcat for something and while getting in, accidentally released the brake,” says Kling, landscape installation supervisor at Bachman’s Nursery in Minneapolis. “The Bobcat came rolling down, smashing into the end gate at the back of the truck. Just seconds before, my helper was grabbing plants, his back to the Bobcat, unaware of what happened. I truly believe he would have been killed.”

At Chapel Valley Landscape Co. in Woodbine, Md., Safety Officer Preston Leyshon relays another close call. “An employee was struck on the head by a large piece of lumber that was swept off the roof of a building under construction. Fortunately, he was wearing a hard hat and escaped serious injury.”

These types of incidents—hazards caused by the unsafe actions of other workers—along with hitting mismarked or unmarked underground utility lines, are common hazards faced at landscape construction sites.

Brett Wendel, production manager at HighGrove Partners in Atlanta, says being too focused on the task at hand, trying to meet deadlines and “other trades not looking out for your people” are in large part responsible for injuries. Also responsible, he says, are insufficient training, a lack of qualified supervision and starting new jobs unfamiliar to the crew.

Buried utilities

The potential hazards to crews at landscape construction sites are endless. Common hazards include:

  • Trenching into a large rock and “bouncing” the trencher into a worker standing too close to the machine;
  • Injuries resulting from lifting heavy objects alone;
  • Unexpected ruts and other uneven surfaces;
  • Drivers who park directly behind your equipment “within seconds of your pulling to a stop;”
  • Lifting/craning materials to high elevations;
  • Pinched/cut fingers and toes due to working with heavy materials;
  • Eye injuries due to blowing or falling debris; and
  • Being struck by falling branches, boulders or other heavy objects.

But it’s unexpectedly hitting buried utility lines that landscapers fear most.

“We have only had two incidents over the years. Once, we hit the main AT&T trunk line with an auger. Thankfully, we had called (Miss Utility DELMARVA) to have utilities marked, and it was marked incorrectly,” says Jamie Jamison, president of the Environmental/Site Division at Brandywine Nurseries in Wilmington, Del. “The other incident was when we uncovered a main electrical power junction at a townhouse community that was placed there by the owners. We had called for a utility mark-out and it also was not marked. Our backhoe scraped just one of the wires as our lookout man spotted it and called for the operator to stop.”

“We have hit (underground) gas lines, electric lines and phone lines with both backhoes and shovels, but no one has been hurt,” Leyshon says. “We are often led to believe that some of the utilities are ‘buried’ at 3 feet, when 3 inches would be a more accurate description.”

“The last instance I can recall was a rush job with a previous employer that was not properly marked and checked by Underground Service Alert, and we hit a gas line near a welding crew,” says Charlie Thompson, Construction/Erosion Department manager at Cagwin & Dorward in Novato, Calif. “The entire job got shut down for half a day.”

“Everybody has run into these things—phone lines, electrical lines, even gas lines running out to grills,” says Phil Gooding, executive vice-president of Gooding’s Nursery and Landscaping in Sherrodsville, Ohio.

Ron Rosencrans, editor of Underground Focus magazine, Lowell, Ind., says “the cost issues associated with damage to underground lines can be enormous. The fiber optic cables used today have much greater capacities than copper cables. A phone company can install a fiber cable that replaces dozens of copper cables. You take out a fiber, and the cost (for both repairs and resulting “loss of use” claims) can be in the millions.”

Rosencrans also cites instances where major evacuations and/or deaths have occurred due to landscapers severing underground gas lines. “The all-time worst accident involving a landscaper hitting an underground line occurred in Rochester, Mich. A crew planting trees for a downtown beautification project hit a gas main at the town’s main intersection during rush hour. The escaping gas exploded, sending splintered glass and other debris flying through the air. One person was killed and 17 were injured.”

Best defense against accidents

Prevention/education is the best defense against serious injury at a landscape construction site, Kling says. “Bachman’s landscape department has an installation manual with a chapter on safety techniques. All crew leaders must read and understand it. In turn, they are responsible for teaching their crew helpers.”

“We have a full-time training coordinator who works with our employees on a variety of safety issues,” HighGrove’s Wendel says. “This includes everything from proper lifting to proper power tool operation to heavy equipment operation. Equipment rental suppliers provide supplementary training classes. Many commercial projects will have weekly safety meetings on site. We also provide constant reminders to our supervisors and crews about the importance of safety, both for themselves and as a liability for the company.”

“We visit all of our projects regularly to familiarize ourselves with the site. We look at site plans and check for things that will be a problem later on. On private jobs, we ask a lot of questions, and also check for hazards prior to commencing work,” Brandywine Nurseries’ Jamison says.

At Cagwin & Dorward, Thompson says “we strive to get as-built drawings on existing sites. Our crews are taught what to do in case we encounter utilities, as well as how to handle situations where they suspect utilities. We have operators we know are safe, and limit the operation of equipment to them as much as possible.”

“Just because landscapers usually don’t dig very deeply doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get utility locations marked,” Rosencrans adds. “A city code might say gas lines must be installed at least 3 feet deep, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hit a gas line at 1 foot or less. Landscaping or erosion can reduce the amount of coverage over a line. The safest practice is to pothole at the marks and expose lines, so you know exactly how deep they are.”

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