One hundred and three years ago, when S.P. McClenahan first started providing tree care services in California, work was done with handsaws and safety probably meant yelling “Timber!” to warn that a tree was falling.
Four generations and more than a century later, the company is still providing arborist services. Over that time the company has witnessed and been part of a huge evolution within the industry in terms of arbor care tools, technology and techniques. However, perhaps no aspect of tree care has seen more change than the ever-increasing emphasis put on safety. It’s an area where S.P. McClenahan in particular is leading the way with innovative approaches to prevent and respond to accidents.
“We’ve always been a company that’s been very strong in safety, and that culture is something we’ve really tried to promote over the past decade,” says Joshua McClenahan, the company’s director of risk management. “Safety is part of our daily process. Everything we do in the field and in the yard always is done with safety in mind. There’s so many clichés, like ‘safety first’ or ‘it’s part of our culture.’ All too often companies say those things but don’t stand by it.”
McClenahan says one of the best things that can be done to truly promote a safe working environment is to involve everyone in the company, from management to supervisors to foremen to the crews. Unless the right environment is established, newer employees can be afraid to speak up about safety issues for fear of a backlash, he notes. “We try to create a culture where they can speak up; they can talk to anyone in the organization,” he explains. “We as a company tell our employees every day: If something doesn’t look right or feel right about your job, stop the job and let’s talk about it.”
He said everyone in the organization is encouraged to share ideas for doing things differently or trying new equipment that might make the job safer. “That’s the kind of buy-in we want. But it’s very challenging to continually nurture that,” he acknowledges.
McClenahan previously worked in risk management with an insurance carrier and learned that, in any industry, promoting safety requires a constant effort to engineer out as many of the risks as possible. “You can do that to an extent with trees by equipping people with the right knowledge, coupled with their experience and the tools to do the job,” he states. “You can’t engineer out all of the risk, but you can limit the risk on the job.”
One obvious way to minimize risk is to avoid the most dangerous situations to begin with. “We have walked away from jobs – I think most companies have,” states McClenahan. At that same time, he says S.P. McClenahan is proud that it is often able to step in and take on some jobs that other companies have shied away from by figuring out ways to get the job done safely. “I think that’s a testament to our people; 45 percent of our field staff have been with us for more than 15 years,” he notes.
While experience can be a valuable asset in terms of safe working practices, McClenahan says that, conversely, it’s often easier to train newer employees in the latest safety practices and methods. “It depends on individual personalities when you introduce new ideas,” he notes. “Over the past five years, we’ve taken an approach of introducing new equipment, new methods and new procedures for all people.”
Employees are given the option of doing things their preferred way, as long as they are in accordance with ANSI, OSHA and state regulations. However, they are also presented with new methods shown to improve safety and/or efficiency. “What we’ve seen is that if employees see buy-in from others within the company, and they see that [the new methods] are being effective for others, that’s when it spreads,” he adds. Even those most set in their ways often become open to new ideas when they see them work effectively in the field, McClenahan concludes.
Bringing in outside experts to present safety trainings for the company can also help boost buy-in from employees, says McClenahan. However, even this delivery method comes with challenges. “Any time you have someone who’s been climbing trees for 20 years, they rarely see someone else as more of an expert,” he says with a laugh. “But we’re not trying to say, ‘This person is better than you.’ We’re trying to say, ‘This person may have some insight that can help you do your job better, and [you]get to go home at night and be with your family.’ That’s what we preach every day. We don’t sit up there at our meetings and say: ‘This is how you’re going to do your job because we say so.’ We explain: ‘This is how we’d like you to do your job because we want you to go home at night and be physically able to do this work for decades.'”
The company conducts a full-day training program for employees each year, as well as regular two- or three-day trainings on topics such as climbing efficiency. This is in addition to weekly safety meetings on specific topics, driven either by regulatory reasons or weather conditions (how to recognize heat illness, for example). A safety supervisor also travels to different job sites to reinforce the messages conveyed in meetings. “You need to constantly reinforce good practices,” McClenahan emphasizes.
In addition to all the trainings and meetings, each job has its own safety procedures. For larger jobs, S.P. McClenahan typically conducts work planning meetings each morning, during which the supervisor pulls up the job’s specs on a computer and shows them to the entire crew on a big screen. Satellite imagery and photos are used to walk everyone through the job: how it will be done, where setup will be, etc. “We make sure everyone has their roles before they even leave the yard. Then, when we get to the job we have efficiency on our side and everyone has a feeling for what they’ll be doing. Then we can make tweaks on-site,” explains McClenahan.
This comprehensive approach not only reduces the risk of accidents, but also goes a long way toward improving the quality of the work being performed, he notes. Proper rigging and correct cuts with the right body positioning, for example, impact safety as well as quality, so there’s a direct correlation between the two. Further, doing the job the right way means there’s less risk for the property owner. McClenahan adds, “When you’re managing risk, you’re also managing a potential loss that you could have to a customer’s site, both during the operation and after the operation is complete. The work is going to be done correctly.”
That’s the message conveyed to customers when you make safety an integral part of your operations, he says. McClenahan reports that at a recent bid meeting he was complimented by the customer for a past job. “He told me that we were more professional than any other company he had seen,” McClenahan recalls. Beyond noting that employees were in uniforms and driving clean trucks, the customer took note of the protocol followed on the job: “He said, ‘Your guys communicate with each other the entire job; you have meetings beforehand; your gear is professional; and you do your job in a professional manner.” What may be seen internally as managing risk conveys professionalism and competence to others, he notes.
McClenahan is quick to point out that risk management doesn’t only mean working to prevent accidents. It also means putting plans and systems in place to respond when accidents do occur. After all, tree care is not a desk job. It carries inherent risks and even the most safety-conscious company will experience incidents. “We have had serious injuries,” he states. “I think anybody in the tree care business knows somebody who has been seriously hurt.”
The mitigation aspect after an incident – a property loss or injury – occurs is absolutely critical, and that requires prior preparation, says McClenahan. In the case of an injury to an employee, for example, it’s paramount to make sure “that employee gets the best care that he can get, as fast as possible, and can return to work as quickly as possible,” he explains, noting that the goal is to raise the morale of the employee up to the point where they are pleased by how the process was handled.
Many companies, including S.P. McClenahan in the past, would get an injured employee to a clinic and let the clinic take responsibility for the situation. Now the company takes a much more proactive approach. “My first step is picking a [workers’ comp] insurance carrier,” explains McClenahan. “As a company, we select our insurance carrier. We don’t go to a state fund because it’s the only option; we go to private carriers because we have history and positive loss experience. We actually interview them to find out what they can do for us.”
Aggressively shopping for the right insurance carrier can save you thousands of dollars per year, “and you can do more for your company and more for your workers,” says McClenahan. Among other things, that means learning about the insurance company’s doctor network; finding out whether they will assign a dedicated claims adjuster so a relationship can be established; asking to meet with the underwriter and claims adjusters; and confirming that there will be a nurse case manager on every claim where there will be lost time. “That way you have a foundation established,” says McClenahan.
He takes it one step further once an insurance carrier has been selected. He then determines which doctors injured workers will see as a first point of contact and talks with those doctors, as well as the clerical staff in those offices. “I meet with everyone I can and put a face to a name. I make sure that the doctor will call me after he meets with one of our injured workers so I have first-hand knowledge rather than just what the employee says,” McClenahan explains.
In the case of an injured shoulder, for example, he will find out which specialists the employee is being referred to and will call to get the employee seen as quickly as possible. Knowing that the injury will mean lost time, he will also call the adjuster and have them on the line with the doctor or specialists, if needed. “I can do all of this remotely, because everything is set up beforehand,” adds McClenahan.
That’s just the starting point: From there, it’s following up with doctors; making sure the employee is being seen and treated by the best people possible; and, if the injured worker isn’t at work, keeping the communication open so there’s a timetable for their return.
While it may seem like a lot of time-consuming legwork to put these systems in place, the benefits in terms of saving money and lost time can be tremendous. “If it’s a surgical case, you can shave months off of a [workers’ comp] claim and off indemnity payments by actually communicating with your employee and communicating with the doctor and communicating with your adjuster,” he notes. That’s thousands of dollars a company can save on each incident.
Just as important is the message that’s sent to employees when they receive this kind of attention and care. “I think it says a lot when an employer really steps up to the plate and does the best they can to help their person,” says McClenahan. “And I bring back everyone that’s hurt back to work early under modified duty; we set up a new job for them to come back and earn a paycheck rather than sit at home and earn two-thirds of their pay tax-free. Everyone feels better about themselves when they’re working.”
The process doesn’t stop there. “Safety doesn’t end when somebody gets hurt. If you let it end there, it sends a very bad message to your organization,” he states. “You have a prevention end, but you also have to have a mitigation end on the back side.” S.P. McClenahan talks with employees who are injured to find out how they were injured, and whether new practices and methods can be instituted that may prevent similar situations from occurring. “If safety is really that important,” McClenahan concludes, “you’re going to follow it through the entire process.”