Executive Insight, Outage Management, Policy & Regulation

Vegetation Management: How a Growth Strategy can be Rooted in Safety

The start of any year brings with it new opportunities and challenges. For Mountain F. Enterprises in 2017, this meant taking a new approach to our organizational focus on safety with a significant investment.

For the first working days of 2017, our 200-plus employees underwent a comprehensive training course that covered the essential safety tenets of working in arboriculture. We tackled yearly OSHA, ANSI, first aid and CPR classroom training, followed by field training in chainsaw use, tree felling, wood chipper safety, rope and saddle climbing, bucket operations, and much, much more. This process also served as a stepping stone for our company, as we undertook ongoing training and safety initiatives throughout the year.

For Mountain F. Enterprises, we saw this process as a true investment—and that’s how all electric utilities with vegetation management programs should view undertaking new safety initiatives. The ongoing challenge for anyone working with arborists in the field is that it is an inherently risky and dangerous job. Pruning, climbing, equipment operation and more must all be performed with expertise and care. Indeed, the only way to ensure continued growth and success is to put safety at the heart of an operation.

Consider the alternative: Beyond the human cost of avoidable accidents and injuries, unsafe working practices can result in loss of business, major insurance claims, and more. The bottom line is that safety can and should be a fundamental part of any tree crew operation, and it can mean the difference between failure and success.

Evolving with Safety at the Forefront

Since the company’s founding in 1984, when we were established as Mountain Firewood, safety has been an essential part of how we’ve broken into new markets, achieved growth, and remained successful. The company was originally founded by Randel and Maria Gomez as Mountain Firewood, at the time operating as a true firewood company. Randel Gomez and a small band of employees spent days at a time deep in the woods doing the work, cutting and supplying wood for families and businesses throughout the northern California area.

From there, the company branched out into new areas of traditional forestry and arboriculture, including logging, residential tree work and more. As Mountain Firewood expanded, it remained a family business, and remained rooted in safety best practices.

In the early 1990s, the Gomez family transitioned the business toward specialized, hazard tree work in the utility industry. Utility tree work is inherently risky, but this progression felt natural for an organization that put safety first. Mountain Firewood became Mountain F. Enterprises, and grew its business with major utilities throughout Northern California, taking on specialty projects that involved higher risk.

“Where we’ve taken the company over the years has always depended on keeping focused on safety,” said Raul Gomez, president, Mountain F. Enterprises. “You don’t just get into a new market or industry by doing what you’ve always done. You need to take the time, make the investment, to learn how to do the job right, and how to do it safely. You need to adapt and make those adjustments or you’re going to fail.”

A New Investment in Training and Safety

Mountain F. Enterprises anchors its commitment to safety practices with annual training courses that take place in January and continue throughout the year. In 2017, we decided to make a greater investment in that process by bringing on a third party for an objective, outside perspective.

Our rationale was twofold: We wanted to demonstrate to our employees that our commitment to safety remains as strong as ever. And we knew that bringing on a third party to evaluate our crews would help us learn new things and catch mistakes we may have not known we were making. Our partner in this training initiative was ACRT, a company we’ve worked with on numerous other initiatives since 2006.

One of our primary objectives of the 2017 training initiative was to evaluate and establish a baseline for the skills and proficiency for all employees working in the field. To that end, we came up with a full range of tests for numerous critical skills. A lead instructor demonstrated for small groups the correct process for a given skill. Each employee then had to perform that skill correctly.

Tests included: OSHA knowledge; First aid and CPR skills; chainsaw safety and operation; proper notch and back-cut techniques; tree felling; proper bucking techniques for logs on the ground; wood chipper operation; log loading; groundsmen skills; and aerial lift operation.

If employees failed to perform the skills correctly, they were given individual attention to correct those mistakes. ACRT also provided advanced instruction in rigging and single rope technique for some of our more advanced specialists.

The process gave us a clear picture of how and where our employees excel. It also enabled us to see where actionable improvement measures needed to be taken. And it offered a path toward continuous improvement in our journey toward safety excellence.

As an investment, around 6,400 hours of billable time were used to put our employees through the week-long course. Our organization felt confident in the return on that investment in the form of reduced injuries, less downtime and fewer claims. We also know that our employees saw and felt the benefit, and we received positive feedback after the initiative was complete.

Mountain F. Enterprises believes that companies can enhance their safety programs to achieve similar results and grow their business.

 

About the Author: Hollis (Les) W. Day, safety director, Mountain F. Enterprises.  He  started in the forest industry in 1991 as a forest technician. In 1994, he obtained his associate degree in forestry from Sierra College. From 2000–2006, Day was a partial owner in a small logging operation, where he was responsible for job estimating, contracts, payroll, accounts payable and receivable, and Cal-OSHA compliance. From 2005–2007, Les served as Chairman of Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. In 2007, he went to work for MFE as an estimator and soon added project manager to his title. Les spent many years in the field with tree crews directing work and overseeing projects.  In 2010, Les added safety director to his title. As a safety director, his new responsibilities included directing MFE’s safety programs to protect employees against harm, and maintain safe working conditions. Les is an ISA certified arborist, utility specialist and a TCIA safety specialist.