From roots to results: How our vegetation management safety program has grown

By Les Day, Mountain F. Enterprises, Inc.

In January of 2017, Mountain F. Enterprises, Inc. made the unprecedented, strategic decision to invest more than 6,400 billable hours in putting our then-200-person organization through a week-long arboriculture safety program. This course covered safety standards such as OSHA and ANSI; practices including first aid and CPR classroom training; and field-based training with a variety of equipment types and processes including tree felling, chainsaw usage, wood chipper safety, climbing, bucket operations, and more.

Read My First Article: Vegetation Management: How a Growth Strategy can be Rooted in Safety

As with any utility services-industry safety program, the primary goal of such training is to reduce the likelihood of incidents, injuries, and their resulting negative effects through employee education and engagement. After all, ours is a people industry – it’s our employees, partners, and contractors that are working in rural and urban areas every day to address vegetation issues so that utility customers continue to enjoy reliable power 24/7/365.

By building into our employees the knowledge and skills needed to work safely on the job, whether in the field or in the office, we and other organizations are able to mitigate the ever-present and often costly risks and hazards associated with arboriculture. And while risk mitigation was certainly one of our primary objectives, we wanted to take that year’s investment further than ever before.

Image Credit: Casey Devlin

In addition to reinforcing our commitment to safety to our employees, we wanted to establish a baseline for the skills employees would need while working in the field. We engaged our long-time partner ACRT Arborist Training to provide instruction, evaluate and assess individual employees, and also provide advanced instruction. This engaging program not only showed us where our team excelled but also identified areas where we could be better – and helped us chart a course toward making those improvements a reality.

Four Years (and 6X Growth Later), Our Commitment Remains the Same

We knew that our annual safety initiatives were not only important for protecting our employees but were also an essential springboard for the next phase of growth. Since we first reported our investment in the week-long safety program in partnership with ACRT Arborist Training, Mountain F. Enterprises has grown from 200 employees to more than 1,200 – not including an additional 400 subcontractors. This rapid expansion occurred throughout 2018 and 2019. Our safety team has also grown alongside the company – today, this department consists of nearly 50 in-house and third-party safety experts, five of whom are solely focused on subcontractor safety.

Along the way, we’ve focused on new safety initiatives, one of the most significant being upfront training for incoming employees. Throughout 2018 and 2019, our growth saw the company bringing in anywhere from 10 to 30 employees per week. With that increase in staffing, it was essential that these new team members proactively received the safety education they needed early to ensure they were empowered to protect themselves and others in the field.

Similar to our 2017 effort, new employees during this period underwent a five-day program covering a number of safety practices, equipment operation evaluations, and more. Our safety team works with each team member on everything from using chainsaws and chippers to safe driving and tree climbing. We also take advantage of this time to complete required OSHA compliance training, and employees undergo a field-based skill assessment. A baseline is established, and following completion of the program, the safety team works with each employee on a related curriculum designed to further their knowledge and skills. Employees are expected to advance in this, and the safety team follows up with them as they progress.

In 2020, we teamed up with Butte College in Oroville, California on a new program developed by a number of industry organizations for individuals without previous tree work experience. As one of the pilot organizations, we sent employees that hadn’t worked in the tree care industry before through the five-week program where they received foundational education and training on tree care and related safety topics. The program is now running statewide, and we continue to send employees that are new to the industry through the program. Because we believe in investing in our employees’ safety knowledge, we pay the program cost for each employee and pay the employee for their time.

Expanding Our Safety Focus Beyond New Hires

While our safety program has always had a company-wide scope, as 2020 progressed we realized that many of our initiatives were centered on new hires. To ensure our managers and foremen were expert-level, safety-focused leaders, we made the decision to send more than 100 of them through the Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) credentialing program of the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA). CTSP certification helps industry leaders develop and nurture a safe work environment by strengthening participants’ leadership, hazard identification, incident control and prevention, and adult learning skills and abilities.

We have maintained our safety momentum into 2021 as well with the recent rollout of a new line clearance program that combines 14 years of safety knowledge and best practices into a single program. We have developed new career paths and timeframes to empower entry-level employees to efficiently grow their careers and have once again partnered with Butte College on a leadership development program designed to develop new managers and strengthen their skills. Many of the employees going through this program are tree workers that have undergone our safety programs and have been identified as candidates for future leadership roles.

One component of our ongoing safety efforts that has been mentioned but not expanded upon is our fleet safety program. To ensure our team members are protected while operating vehicles on the road and in remote areas, we have implemented Lytx cameras and telematics equipment on more than 800 vehicles. Through this monitoring equipment, we have successfully reduced vehicle-related incidents and positively impacted our employees’ driving behavior not only at work but also in their personal lives.

The Results of Our Safety Focus

As with any large-scale change, resistance is a natural reaction. But we knew there was a higher goal of protecting our employees, contractors, and those they serve. Through consistent leadership and employee training, it has become clear to the 1,600 employees and contractors that comprise Mountain F. Enterprises – who collectively lead to more than two million hours worked per year – that we could do more and be better to create a safer work environment.

Thanks to this continued focus, and with the support of ACRT Arborist Training, that’s what we have achieved. We have increased our International Suppliers Network (ISN) rating from a C to an A in only two years. We have been able to make safety a deeply ingrained part of our culture while reducing our incident rate to one of its lowest levels ever. And there’s much more to come.

Thank you for following our safety journey, both with our 2017 update and here. Remember, when it comes to safety, we shouldn’t operate in silos. We’d enjoy collaboratively discussing our safety initiatives and yours and welcome your questions and input. Please contact us at mfe@mtfent.com if you’d like to share your own efforts to move your organization and the industry as a whole forward in the months and years to come.

About the Author

Hollis (Les) W. Day, Safety Director/New Business Development, 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 CTSP.

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