All too often, articles pin the responsibility of tree workers’ safety on the tree workers themselves, but the reality is that the process must begin with management. Although limited research is available regarding model safe work behavior in the tree care industry, much can be gleaned from research conducted in construction and other labor professions. Research shows that by employers modeling and supporting safe behavior, as well as good productivity, workers receive positive reinforcement for their safe work practices. In other words, the key to assessing a company and its employees’ commitment to safety is by monitoring the safety culture.

Safety culture vs. safety climate

The topic of safety culture extends beyond the production sector of tree care, and is a vital aspect in every work place, indoors and out. Typically disputed, safety culture is defined as the shared group values or accepted social norms among workers, and is often difficult to change. Safety climate, comparatively, is defined as a snapshot in time of a company, which is often situational and rather temporary.

Fernández-Muñiz, et al. (2007) suggest that commitment to safety from management can affect both the attitudes and behaviors of their workers. The authors formed a positive safety culture model, and in doing so determined two other contributing factors: employee involvement and a safety management system. The system includes a safety policy, incentives for safe behavior, training for employees, communication within the hierarchy, planning (for both prevention and in the case of emergency), and feedback on events and conditions. Connections between these statements and the tree care industry are quite evident when considering the clearly defined hierarchy apparent in most tree care companies, as well as the potential disconnect between managers and workers.

When management is alienated from actual tree care operations, they often create unrealistic quotas that force workers to choose between safety and production. By keeping workers involved in safety management, managers are assured a connection will remain between what occurs in the office and what occurs in the field. Further, planning and practicing safety procedures are of utmost importance when considering the immediacy of action required when tree care incidents occur.

Assessing a company’s safety commitment

As safety climate is a temporal condition of current circumstances, culture becomes the better guide for determining the commitment to safety within a company. The aspects of safety culture addressed here are applicable to any industry. The following four components are to be used to assess and help improve a company’s safety culture:

Formalized safety plan: Formalized safety plans are official procedures that are established for reporting and addressing occupational safety hazards. This can include regular tailgate safety meetings, field demonstrations and other formal communications encouraging the dissemination of safety information. Additionally, companies must have a system for the formal reporting of unsafe behavior. This can include reporting the incident, providing the individual(s) with feedback and/or forming a group discussion in response to an incident. In essence, the employees should know that both their unsafe and safe behavior will be noticed, and that unsafe behavior will be reported without exception.

The formalized plan should also include an employee whose specific job description relates to safety coordination. This person should be available to the employees and function as a liaison between the workers and management, including immediate superiors, when direct communication is not possible.

Informal safety procedures: This aspect of a safety culture encourages unwritten incentives for safe work behavior. For instance, some employers might provide a financial incentive for safe work behavior. By providing incentives, the safe workers know that they will be commended for their hard work and they should continue to be safe, while the unsafe workers are encouraged to change. If the system works well, all employees are accountable, because workers will try to be noticed, while management is forced to pay attention. Other incentives can be as simple as a safe-employee-of-the-week award, or a free lunch for an incident-free week. When workers see that their safe coworkers are being rewarded, they will want to play along as well, but management must be consistent for this to be effective. If the most-valued employee is the highest producer, but also the biggest liability, then the company needs to reassess its priorities.

Dedication through organization: The best judgment for how management feels about safety is how it prioritizes safety in its decision-making processes. This commitment to safety from management can range from budgeting production costs (such that safe behavior is practical) to encouraging employees to seek additional education (e.g., certifications or training). For example, a company might account for time employees spend stretching, prior to beginning tree work, or they might provide aerial rescue training on rainy days. This accountability from management can also help forge a positive relationship between them and the field workers.

Key personnel: Finally, one of the most crucial aspects of attaining a positive safety culture in a company is commitment from the direct supervisors, including forepersons, managers, or other direct reporting officers. This demonstration of commitment to safety must be present both in their actions and in their words. Examples include wearing proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when visiting job sites, or applauding crews for having a safe work week instead of simply having a productive one. These people are key to promoting upper management’s values. Not only must they demonstrate good behavior themselves, they must also promote management’s commitment to safety by encouraging workers to follow suit.

Ideas for creating a positive safety culture

Beyond the four aforementioned aspects, promoting safety becomes a sales pitch from the top down. When management encourages supervisors to be safe, these people, in turn, encourage forepersons or workers to be safe, who, in turn, encourage their coworkers to be safe. This can happen through a detailed and positive approach involving all employees.

Upper management must take the time to visit crews as frequently as is practical. By making an appearance, employers are reminded how the day-to-day job site functions. It is at this time that employers might identify a problem that can be resolved by making a site visit. For example, employers might find it valuable to ask workers why they are not wearing hearing protection. By doing this, they might learn that the earplugs the company furnished are uncomfortable and that their workers would prefer to wear a different brand. In opening this line of communication, a solution might present itself.

As addressed by Olsen et al. (2009) and Alvero et al. (2008), modeling is a key component to a person’s likelihood of performing in the desired way. Proper modeling is essential in the workplace by all members to form safe work habits. Despite the number of years worked in the industry, or how little time one spends on the job site, everyone should be held to the same high safety standards.

Especially with young and impressionable new employees, it is important to remove the stigma of PPE being “uncool.” Instead, employees (particularly upper management and forepersons), should always model the behavior they want to see in their employees. Proper modeling will help foster a safer workplace for everyone involved.

Similarly, supervisors should never turn a blind eye to bad or unsafe behavior. Supervisors have the ability and obligation to correct workers and provide constructive feedback. By remaining attune to all workers’ behavior, supervisors can quickly spot and correct unsafe behavior. Unsafe conditions should be addressed immediately, but unsafe behaviors should be corrected when it is safe to do so. For example, if an employee were about to cut a branch that was improperly rigged, the supervisor should address the situation immediately before an incident occurs. However, if employees were feeding a chipper street-side, it might be advisable to wait until the worker finishes feeding the pile before directing them to feed curbside in the future. This is clearly a judgment call that will vary for every situation. What is most important is that supervisors be consistent in their rewarding and reprimanding. This will make employees accountable for their every action.

When evaluating employees, it is I\\important to praise them for their safe work practices, in addition to their production. Without positive reinforcement or incentive programs, employees have little motivation to maintain their safe behavior. At the beginning of the workday, employees should be guided through a job briefing that addresses hazardous conditions, safety measures, roles and action plans. At the end of the day, they should reflect on the positive safety moments, including teaching opportunities and safety suggestions that were imparted.

Most important, all employees must be involved in the safety management process. By working together, employers and employees understand each other’s roles, and become accountable for their own. Positive lines of communication among all parties build dedication, collaboration and confidence in one another.