The Bureau of Labor Statistics found landscaping was among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in 2016, with 17.4 fatal injuries for every 100,000 grounds maintenance workers. Of the nearly 5,200 fatal workplace injuries in 2016, 4% were among landscapers and grounds crews.
BLS found 12,770 nonfatal injuries among landscape workers in 2016.
How do these injuries translate to costs for employers?
Buckner is an insurance company that has extensive experience serving clients in the landscaping, construction and agricultural industries, among others. Troy Sibelius, executive vice president at Buckner in Denver, has a degree in landscape architecture and has worked at a number of landscaping companies. He sat down with Colorado Lawn & Landscape to talk about the most common types of insurance claims he sees.
Soft tissue, hard costs
The two biggest types of workers’ comp claims Buckner sees are soft-tissue injuries like strains and sprains, and cuts and puncture wounds, Sibelius said.
Sprained backs, twisted knees and wrenched shoulders are common, especially among newer or younger workers, he said. BLS data show that over 41% of reported injuries in 2016 were among workers who’d been on the job less than a year, and over a third of injuries were among workers with between one and five years of experience with their employer. (In case you’re wondering, the most commonly reported times for an injury were Tuesdays between 8 a.m. and noon in the first two hours of a shift.)
Stretching is an easy and inexpensive way to prevent those types of injuries. In fact, some larger outfits will start their day by leading crews through five minutes of stretching to get warmed up, Sibelius said.
Appropriate training is still important, though. While newer employees were more likely to be injured, BLS data show that nearly a quarter of landscapers injured in 2016 had at least five years of experience.
Soft-tissue injuries can be a thorn in employers’ side because they take a long time to heal, and it may not be easy to tell when a worker is ready to come back to the job.
“If I’m an injured worker, I can milk that soft-tissue injury for a long time, and there’s really no way for doctors to prove” that the worker is healed without extensive testing, Sibelius said.
Cuts and abrasions are another big source of claims. Power tools, saws and mowers are only as safe as the operator. BLS received 2,570 reports of cuts, lacerations and puncture wounds in 2016.
Minor seasonal injuries include heat-related illnesses, dehydration, insect bites and sun exposure; “typical things that can be a pain in the neck, but if you’re taking the right precautions and providing your guys with the right personal protective gear—gloves, work boots, eye protection—it can make a huge difference,” he said.
Reducing the cost of a claim
The best way to keep the cost of a claim down is not to have one. However, there are some proactive ways employers can limit the cost of a future claim.
Sibelius urged employers to consider requiring new hires to undergo a pre-employment physical before joining a crew. That way, if a worker hurts his knee on a job, the claim only has to cover damage caused by that injury, not the damage from an old football or skiing injury.
Pre-employment physicals can be expensive—between $50 and $100 per exam—which can put a damper on seasonal hiring drives, and Sibelius said some contractors decide the cost isn’t worth it since workers’ comp will cover an injury anyway.
Smaller companies may be able to justify that reasoning, but large employers should definitely consider making pre-employment physicals part of their hiring process. After a certain premium level, typically around $4,000, “experience mods” kick in, Sibelius explained.
Experience modification rates are multipliers on an employer’s workers’ compensation premium. The rate is based on the employer’s claims history over the past three years, including the number and severity of claims.
The employer’s class rate, as determined by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, also determines the modification rate, so riskier businesses like tree removal will have higher rates than, say, grounds maintenance.
“If you’re a really small contractor and your premium’s only $1,500 a year, you’re never going to have an experience mod,” he noted, but most larger firms will have an experience mod applied to their workers’ comp premium.
“The only way you can control this is by having no claims,” Sibelius said of the experience modification rate.
After an injury, a return-to-work program can help landscapers manage the impact that injured workers have on their businesses, both in lost labor and in the cost of the workers’ comp claim. Slowly integrating injured workers back into daily operations, either with limited hours or different responsibilities based on their injuries, is better for the worker and for the business.
“If the employer can get them back even working part time, that amount of money doesn’t get paid by the work comp carrier, and it lowers the cost of the claim,” which can also lower an employer’s premiums, according to Sibelius.
Plus, “the worker isn’t sitting at home on the couch, drinking a beer and watching TV, and [hears] ‘If you’ve been injured, call 1-800-ATTORNEY,’” Sibelius said. Research has shown that when attorneys get involved with a claim, the cost increases by 40%, he noted.
One of the intangible benefits of return-to-work programs is that they can help landscapers make their business more appealing to employees.
“It shows that the employer cares about you,” Sibelius noted. “It says, ‘We value you as an employee. We have work that needs to be done. We’re willing to try to figure out some way to get you back to work.’”
Sibelius recommends requiring workers to report injuries within 48 hours, and urges employers to check in frequently with workers who report an injury to make sure it’s not getting worse.
“You really have to be aware of the employee and be open with them, and hopefully they’re open with the crew leader or foreman,” he said.
Injuries that happen outside of working hours can be aggravated by work responsibilities, so documenting injuries right away, including any witnesses, is an important part of managing claims costs.
As a group, sprains and strains may not be very serious, but the cost can add up, with claims reaching as high as $100,000 for more serious injuries that require surgery or extensive time off work, Sibelius said.
The National Safety Council found that in 2015, the cost of workplace injuries and fatalities was $142.5 billion, including nearly $46 billion in lost wages and productivity, and $31.4 billion in medical costs. Workers would need to produce $900 in goods or services to offset that cost, according to NSC’s “Injury Facts 2017” report.
NCS found that the average workers’ comp claim in 2014 was $38,617. Sprains and strains cost an average $32,191, while laceration claims cost an average
“The overall cost of the claim may not be that expensive, but it’s a hassle for the employee if they’re going to these chiropractic visits during the work day,” Sibelius noted. “There can be some inconvenience on everybody’s part.”
Sibelius stressed the importance of locating underground utilities before doing any kind of digging.
The Common Ground Alliance, an association that aims to reduce damages to underground utilities in North America, found over 390,300 reported damages across the U.S. and Canada in 2016, including over 5,500 “near miss” damages in the U.S.
Colorado was among the top 10 states with the most reported damages, with landscapers responsible for almost 5% of damages state- wide, according to CGA’s Damage Information Reporting Tool.
Colorado 811, the one-call center that administers the utility locate line, processed over 848,000 utility locate requests in 2017, 13% of which were related to new landscaping or irrigation projects. Of those, 10% were made by contractors. As of April 10, 11% of tickets in 2018 have been for landscaping and irrigation jobs.
Whitney Cregger, communications and marketing specialist at Colorado 811, recommends that landscapers mark their dig area with white paint before calling 811. “This helps the locators fully understand the scope of the project,” she said in an email.
Even in cases where hitting underground utilities aren’t dangerous, damage can be extensive—and expensive.
“Let’s say somebody has an office in their home,” Sibelius said, and a damaged line shuts down the power to the home. “They could face issues with loss of income from that homeowner … or other impacted parties.”
Sibelius said he gets a couple of calls a season from landscapers who didn’t locate underground lines prior to starting work.
Marking lines is fairly simple—call 811 and an agent will send the appropriate utility to the site. The problem, Sibelius said, is timing.
“It takes them two or three days to get out there, so the contractor needs to have their schedule lined up.”
While there are clearly dangers to workers, landscaping companies also face a number of risks to their businesses in the course of operations.
Property damage due to water is a big risk, Sibelius said. Grading problems, runoff from rain and storm water, and faulty irrigation systems can damage landscaping and buildings.
Sometimes it isn’t even the landscaper’s work that causes a problem, and Sibelius warned that contractors need to be aware of what kind of work is being done across the job site. He described a claim arising from a renovation project, where the architect planned downspouts that would run off into lower grades in the yard.
“The landscaper had to come in and put in a pretty extensive French drain system” to manage the runoff, he said.
Sibelius noted that general liability policies typically don’t cover workmanship.
“If you install an irrigation system improperly, they’re not going to pay for the cost to repair, replace or redesign the irrigation system,” he said. Insurers could potentially pay for resulting property damages, but the labor and cost of repairing the system will be on the installer.
Sibelius recommends that landscapers asked to install or maintain water features work with a subcontractor who specializes in that type of work.
“If it’s something that they have not done before and have experience in, they should definitely subcontract that out,” he said. “There are just so many different issues with the wrong size pumps, leaking bedliners—it’s just ripe for problems.”
Similarly, tree trimming and removal require special expertise. Workers’ compensation policies don’t cover work done above ground, Sibelius said.
“If they’re just using a handheld trimmer and a bow saw, cleaning up dead limbs from the ground, typically that would fall under the landscaping code,” he explained. “But if they have guys climbing in trees and doing major arbor work, it’s a totally different class code for work comp, and it’s much more expensive.”
The nature of landscapers’ work exposes their employees and their businesses to various risks, but one of the most frustrating is good old-fashioned lawbreaking.
“It’s amazing how many people get their trailers with all of their equipment stolen,” Sibelius said.
GPS trackers can help locate a stolen trailer, but when it’s found, it’s usually empty, he added. Simple deterrents can discourage would-be thieves from hijacking a work trailer, from tire chains to Kryptonite U-locks, but Sibelius notes that sometimes business owners are lulled into a sense that it won’t happen to them.
“They’ve been on a job site for two months, nothing’s happened and that’s when the guys are out there casing a project,” he said.
He recommended making security checks a mandatory part of daily processes, including keeping keys to work trucks in an office or lock box rather than the vehicle.
The cost to business owners of injuries and theft can be high, to say nothing of the emotional cost of an injury or worse. Proper training and protection are key to keeping workers safe on the job and keeping businesses running smoothly.