Health & safety red flag issues for parks and gardens

As national group training manager of Ground Control, one of the UK's largest contractors with nearly 3,000 staff, as well as BALI technical director, Neil Huck knows the vital importance of developing and maintaining a top-notch health-and-safety policy. He shared the benefit of his experience at a Parks & Gardens Live workshop on 27 June.

Neil Huck
Neil Huck

Huck's £120m-turnover company has more than 400 clients and its grounds maintenance and arboriculture teams work in dangerous environments by rail lines and motorways, tackling invasive species and completing snow clearance and winter gritting. The company has compiled a team of 14 health-and-safety, equality and environment experts that has won eight gold Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents awards.

"People say why spend all that money? Have an accident, have somebody hurt at work and then ask me about cost," he told delegates at the workshop.

On top of the heavy human cost of not taking health and safety seriously comes the financial cost. "The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) have been told to 'make it hurt', so the bigger the company the bigger the fine, the bigger the cost. The HSE on-site charges £124 an hour for its investigation. Be aware of that." Reputational damage is also a real threat.

Steep banks

Ground Control has a number of water company clients that require grass to be kept cut to 50mm but also have steep banks. Huck showed delegates a photograph of the bright-yellow label on the bottom of every mower that shows the maximum angle at which it can safely work.

The company has never had an accident, said Huck. "We've had some near misses, we've had some close encounters with banks and, working for the water companies, it's a daily occurrence that we have to make a call on."

Ground Control has incorporated a health-and-safety check into PDAs that control all site visits across the UK. "The guys log on, they have a unique PIN and then it lists the jobs they are doing for that day and then any risks, and then they can report an aborted visit. We get them to send a message back by clicking an icon — for example, 'can't work today because it's torrential rain and the bank dynamics change'."

Huck advised downloading a free inclinometre app for smartphones so that everyone can easily measure the angle of the banks on which they work.

For banks that are too steep, Ground Control has invested in the biggest fleet of balloon track remote control mowers in the UK, he added. One of its reservoir sites needed cutting, safely, twice a month. The team considered using strimmers but that would take 15-20 people hours to complete one cycle. Investing in the remote control mowers gained the company new work at Warwick Castle and other water companies with dams.

Noise and vibration

Long-term health issues from everyday work include noise leading to gradual deafness as workers get older, with both mowers and strimmers emitting levels above the recommended 85dB. 

Muscular skeletal disorders (MSDs) have been top of the list of the HSE's concerns since the mid 1980s and 33% of all reported sickness incidents are to do with MSDs. "Whitefinger", hand and arm vibration syndrome, which can stop blood flowing to the fingers, is now part of this category. "One employee had to have his fingers amputated at 52 as gangrene set in," Huck told the delegates.

"We have studied this and bought kit to measure sound and hand-arm vibration. The HSE wants to know how much are you recording. Have you got records of exposure limits? If you haven't you are wide open for prosecution and you are wide open for compensation claims.

"Thanet council recently was taken to court by 12 employees over hand and arm vibration and they had a massive payout. You now have loads of ambulance-chasing lawyers asking for evidence. It's happening a lot."

A new problem is silica dust from cutting concrete with a saw without water suppression to keep the dust down. "The incidences of silicosis are going through the roof in construction and allied trades like landscaping. 90% of the dust coming from a saw you can't see. It's microscopic and gets into your lungs and causes irritation," said Huck.

Then there are biological issues. A landscaper was recently successfully prosecuted for not making his workers aware of the risk of giant hogweed and being able to recognise it. "We have to make sure operatives are fully aware and wear full waterproof clothing."

Lyme disease

Meanwhile, awareness of Lyme disease, spread by ticks, is crucial. "It's a serious issue. Make sure all your guys are aware of Lyme disease. It's spreading nationally. It used to be around 25% of all ticks carried it but now it's above 50% and still growing." Oak processionary moth is also spreading far beyond London and causes blisters when people come into contact with the caterpillars.

Another serious danger is discarded needles. "We have 47 housing association contracts and it's constant on those. Recently we collected on one site 40 boxes of needles that we had to get rid of." Ground Control puts operatives through a special course on discarded needles and teaches them to spot paraphernalia that indicate they may be nearby. Teams should all carry an EpiPen and know it is there, he added.

Volunteers are also a key issue. Even if they are not staff, it is important to do a risk assessment and method statement and make sure they understand it, said Huck. Consider whether they have the right personal protective equipment and whether they understand the hazards on site — for example, discarded needles and hazardous plants.

What to do: assess the site prior to buying machinery and equipment

  • Buy machinery that can cope with the site's conditions.
  • Provide training for all operatives.
  • Assess operatives' competences to a recognised level.
  • Carry out a risk assessment on the site, machinery and hazards
  • Record risk assessment findings and implement the method statement.
  • Carry out a point-of-work risk assessment, taking into account weather conditions, ground conditions and vegetation growth.
  • Regularly review. This "is the golden rule", said Huck. "Your risk assessment must be a living document."

The high cost of getting it wrong

  • Cirencester Town Council was ordered to pay £29,000 after a worker was thrown from and then hit by a mower in September 2012 while cutting grass on a slope, breaking four ribs. The council pleaded guilty to breaching the Health & Safety at Work Act. The HSEe's Alison Fry said the accident was "entirely avoidable".

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