Did you know that greenhouses are inherently unsafe? That’s according to Ian Baker, greenhouse manager at the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis). He said, “Many of the regulations we enjoy that keep us safe at home and most worksites without our notice simply do not exist in greenhouses.”

In addition to moral and ethical reasons for keeping employees safe at work, companies can be financially penalized for failing to provide training, personal protective equipment (PPE) and a safe working environment. A single citation can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Typically, a business that receives one citation receives multiple citations at the same time.

“Most commonly the injuries I see are small cuts and repetitive stress injuries such as back injuries,” Baker said.

“The most common causes of these common injuries [are] hurrying to finish a task, sloppy or lazy work or using the wrong tool for the job,” he added.

Creating a culture that embraces and encourages a safety-oriented approach to using equipment and completing the task at hand can help reduce the instances of work-related injuries.

Safety culture

At the first opportunity possible, establish a “safety culture.” An environment that encourages safety extends beyond developing a protocol or policy.

Fostering a company-wide culture and getting employees to “buy in” can be difficult. It can be particularly challenging when multiple groups of people have access to the working environment. At UC-Davis, employees and researchers work in the greenhouse. This creates a larger pool of employees to keep safe and a wider range of potential injuries.

“Because such a large variety of people access my greenhouse space under a large variety of terms, I have to establish the safety protocol and the parameters for use of the facility immediately,” Baker said.

Orientation for new employees is an ideal opportunity to emphasize the facility’s safety procedures. Talk with new employees about the company’s commitment to safety. Provide a copy of any policies on the first day of work, deliver safety training and openly discuss your expectations for preventing injuries. Failing to make expectations clear upfront leaves the door open for dangerous practices.

“I take extra time with new users and employees, or with demonstrating new tasks, to walk them through the task and set the example for how to handle it safely,” he said.

Nurturing a “safety culture” continues beyond the first few days of employment for a new employee. An ongoing commitment to training and communication is critical for all employees. Training on the proper use of equipment and your safety policy is equally important for veteran employees who can easily become complacent or fall into an easy routine. Regularly scheduled safety trainings, tailgate talks or an annual safety training day reinforce the importance of following safety procedures and using PPE.

Read more: Greenhouse sanitation: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Lead by example

It’s incumbent on you as the owner or manager to set the example for safety. Once a safety policy is set and a culture is established, every person, regardless of their position in the company, should follow the safety guidelines. It can be inconvenient in instances when you’re simply checking in on an employee’s progress, but every opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to safety is crucial.

“It sounds obvious, but you have to be certain your actions match your expectations,” Baker said.

Demonstrate your commitment to safety through investments in access to the correct PPE for the task, appropriate signage, training and infrastructure. It’s also important that employees understand that safety is more important than speed.

“Being safe often requires more time or money spent on the task than doing it in an unsafe manner,” Baker said, “but the bottom line cannot take priority over safety.”

Read more: Safety and first aid on the farm

Safety protocols

Because the greenhouses under Baker’s guidance are owned by a public university, the legal obligations regarding how he is expected to maintain safety are spelled out explicitly in university policy. This is not usually the case in the context of private sector greenhouse operations, although the employee safety standard is still subject to federal regulation.

In addition to any safety protocols created for your greenhouse, there are federal regulations that any business is required to meet. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was enacted to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” The act also created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for the enforcement of safety and health legislation.

Every employer, regardless of the industry, is bound by OSHA’s general code known as Section 5 (a) (1), which states that “each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees…”

Twenty-five states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have OSHA-approved state plans outlining their standards and enforcement policies that must be followed. You can find out if your state has its own plan on the OSHA website at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/.

Bottom line

Employees who work unsafely may be able to complete a job faster, but when a severe injury does occur, it can be detrimental to the bottom line. Injuries cost money. Insurance claims, fines, medical bills, lost time, productivity and lost equipment add up quickly.

Allowing employees to use unsafe practices increases the potential for recurring incidents, which can be damaging to a company’s reputation. “The timing of training and authenticity of safety culture is the key to successfully maintaining a safe work place,” Baker said.

Small to mid-sized businesses can request a free meeting with the State OSHA Consultation Program to identify potential hazards including any that could result in a citation and get suggestions on how to decrease hazards. The representative provides a follow-up report highlighting things to work on and will likely include things business owners would not have considered.

Though the state OSHA program is funded by the federal OSHA department, it is separate from OSHA enforcement, and findings are not submitted to OSHA enforcers.

The state consultation offices are typically located at universities, colleges or within state government. The results of the assessment are not reported to OSHA enforcement, unless the business owner is unwilling to eliminate a “serious” hazard or remove employees from an “imminent danger” situation within an agreed-upon time frame. Learn more about this free service at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) also provides extensive information regarding the hazards and controls relating to agricultural workers. Greenhouse employees have been included in the larger category of agriculture.

For more on limiting injuries related to DOL identified hazards, visit http://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/agriculturaloperations/hazards_controls.html.


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