Safe Driving:Where the rubber meets the road

In any service business where you need to travel to a client's property to provide care, the issue of getting there safely is a concern. Most organizations give safe driving serious consideration. Sadly, however, some organizations give it only token lip service. The difference is that companies that care endure, while the careless ones fall by the wayside. This article discusses specific aspects of safe driving, where--when we act professionally--we accomplish our work and help our organization grow.

Safe driving rewards The advantages of driving in a safe manner are many. When it is an accepted way of doing business, it becomes a habit and, therefore, carries over into employees' personal lives. Everyone benefits from this habit. The bottom line for your company is that when you make a serious and continuous attempt to drive safely, you will avoid pain, injury, grief, and family and work crises. Your company also will benefit monetarily from reduced costs, downtime and vehicle and equipment repairs.

In addition, safe driving and working around the vehicle in a safe manner result in fewer injuries. This helps lower your liability insurance and workers'-compensation costs. You could use the funds you save as rewards for safe driving. For example, consider offering an annual safe-driving award for employees who maintain perfect driving records with no accidents or damages. Deduct the costs incurred, if any, through the year and give the remaining amount as a bonus at year's end.

Driver's training Regarding how to train, many employers feel a formal program is necessary to ensure that anyone who drives a vehicle or equipment is well versed in using it in a safe and productive manner. Offer training at your facility first, then go out and allow the new employee to drive while you or a responsible instructor sit alongside and coach. That's critical. Let the new employee do all the driving during the period of training. Periodically, you may want to conduct spot checks--frequently at first, then less often as his or her driving skills improve. If a concern arises, check more often.

If work vehicles are smaller, learning is easier. If vehicles are larger, or if you use trailers, it gets more tricky, and ability and experience becomes more important. Wider bodies and higher clearances can challenge anyone not familiar with them, and backing up a trailer can be a difficult task if you're not used to it. An experienced driver's coaching is beneficial to a new employee. Your insurance carrier also can help with videos as well as other training aids. Keep specific records in personnel files for all training. Consider keeping a written statement on file that documents that an employee has had sufficent training to operate power equipment or a vehicle.

The best training programs need monitoring to be effective. Several ways exist to ensure your people drive safely. First, when you have a new hire, write your insurance carrier and include a copy of their driver's license. If you checked into his or her driving record before hiring, you already have a copy in your file. As a standard practice, your carrier should check all employees' driving records every 6 months and send a copy to you.

Initiate a policy in which all employees must notify their supervisor, in writing, of any and all moving traffic violations before the start of business the next working day. Companies should file these and other written follow-up items in a personnel file. You'll know immediately of a problem, and can take action as needed. Why insist on this for all employees? Because you need to know if any employee was ticketed for certain behavior, such as driving under the influence, before you continue to allow them to drive your vehicles.

Management needs to set the pace by example. You'll need to be the leader and encourage an attitude of driving in a safe manner at all times. Stress the importance of safe driving in the work environment and as a requirement at your company. You need to make it clear that this is a serious topic and you will not accept a casual attitude in the vehicle or at the wheel.

Safety requirements General areas of concern regarding safe driving exist in all businesses, and specific areas of concern exist for lawn- and tree-care companies. The following "primer" list will help you develop a safe-driving program for your company. Expand on these basic steps according to the needs of your company:

* Have a workers'-compensation policy in effect that covers work in and around your vehicles and power equipment.

* Require all employees who drive any of your vehicles or equipment to have an annual eye exam.

* Have a local doctor as your company doctor and refer employees to him or her for concerns. As time goes by, you may see a pattern of visits, which show you areas you should address.

* Develop a drug policy. Include random testing as well as testing following any accident that involves an employee, either at your facility or in the field. Check with Professional Lawn Care Association of America and your own attorney to create an effective policy that will protect you legally. The policy helps to ensure that no person under the influence of any drugs, including alcohol, will ever drive.

* Never serve alcoholic beverages at your place of business.

* Keep accurate records in personnel files, for all employees, of accidents, injuries and violations of safety rules.

* Act immediately when you observe unsafe situations or people.

* Have a safe-driver-training program in effect: regularly during the off season and randomly during production times. Record all driving-safety training in files, with topics and dates.

* Practice common-sense safety practices, such as having fire extinguishers in each vehicle.

* Load vehicles properly to prevent spills, breakage and loss of material during transportation (see "Safe hauling and dumping," page 28). If a spill does occur, clean it immediately. Pesticide cleanup is obviously necessary, but liquid fertilizer and other products need action as well.

* Have clean, extra personal-protective equipment available and accessible for cleanup and mixing on each production vehicle.

* Encourage your employees to observe your parked vehicles as they walk by, to help ensure no leaks, flat tires or other concerns have arisen.

* Don't allow smoking in the vehicles.

* Always require use of turn signals, never exceed the speed limit and keep the vehicle in safe-operating condition.

* Require all employees on the road to return from the field if inclement weather develops.

Think about it. You want assertive people for sales and service, yet it's vital they drive defensively. You'll need to provide the reasons for them to not drive and operate equipment in an aggressive, unsafe manner. Invite your insurance carrier to visit your facility, look over your vehicles and talk with your drivers about safely getting the job done. They'll give you ideas on what's right and what you may need for improvements. Plan this in the off season, when you can implement these ideas.

Vehicle safety Vehicles get us to the work site so we can provide our services. When in public, you want your vehicles to convey an image of courteous driving, neat appearance and company pride. While traveling, drivers must address many concerns. Trucks ride and handle differently than cars, and with the addition of a trailer, the chance for an accident in inclement weather increases.

By checking your vehicle and equipment on a regular basis, you'll keep it safer and more productive. As with any vehicle, you need to check some items daily, while others only need a weekly, monthly or an end-of-round check. Consider and build upon the following:

* Daily. Check the oil level (on power equipment too), tire wear and inflation, brake lights and turn signals, window condition and the security of items you carry. This will take only minutes. Keep a check-off sheet so you don't forget anything.

* Weekly. Check all fluid levels, tires, safety equipment, lights, mirrors, wipers, hoses, belts and forms present. Friday is a good day for this. With familiarity, this is a 10-minute inspection, and it gives you at least a day to correct any problem that would affect Monday's production.

* End of round. At the end of each "round," or each 6- to 8-week period, check brakes for leaks, transmission fluid, wheel lugs, U bolts, fittings, tires, air filter, belts and fire extinguisher. Again, this is not complete, but a good general inspection. It's about a 45-minute job. Depending on your mileage, this may correspond with your regular oil, grease and lube maintenance.

Be prepared You must carry proof of insurance coverage, vehicle and trailer registrations, accident report forms and MSDS. Periodically train employees to refresh them on how to complete the forms accurately. If you don't have a cellular phone in the vehicle, always have change for emergency calls to your office. If you keep pest-control products inside vehicles, vent out the odors--especially from the cab. Keep the cab clean and do not use it to store products. This will reduce the chance that you might inadvertently spill these materials in the cab.

Discourage drivers from backing up, because this is when accidents are more apt to occur. However, because drivers experience times when they will need to back up, you should mount a back-up mirror on the driver's-side rear corner for rear visibility behind vehicle. Also install a reverse-gear warning beeper to warn nearby people. Install self adhesive, non-slip safety strips on all bumper edges to prevent slipping. And plan for thorough cleanup and maintenance on the next inclement-weather day after a round ends. Production is not lost, and your vehicles are kept in great condition.

In closing, when you stress the issue of driving safely, you must take immediate action if employees don't meet your standards. If a concern arises, review the problem with the person and record it appropriately in his or her personnel file. Driving vehicles and equipment in an unsafe manner can affect employees' and clients' health, as well as your organization's survival. Driving in a safe, defensive manner at work helps everyone. As they improve, people become more valuable and grow with the company. And no organization grows without commitment from all of its people.

It is truly possible for a smart, assertive company to be profitable and have all of its employees drive in a safe manner. Many companies throughout the country have employees who drive vehicles and equipment year after year with no accidents. That can be the case with your organization, too, if you take the steps to make it happen.

William R. Harrigan started and managed his own lawn- and tree-care company for 17 years. Currently he trains and consults within the green industry.

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