Compared to many industries, pest management is a safe business. But it’s not without tragedy.
Last September, Susan Sims of ECO Wildlife Solutions, Moreland, Ga., suffered massive injuries to her head, neck, spine and ribs when she fell off a ladder. After 66 days in the hospital and three major surgeries, she faces a long recovery and permanent disabilities.
This past November, a Florida operator working alone died when he fell off a roof or ladder and broke his neck. In October, an Arizona landscaper died of cardiac arrest after being stung hundreds of times when he and coworkers were attacked by 300,000 bees. A technician in California was crushed by a semi-truck while checking bait stations in a loading dock in 2008.
Thankfully, accidents like these are rare.
Most Common Injuries.
The most common work-related injuries in 2013 were slips/trips and falls (22 percent), said Linda Midyett, a safety and loss prevention specialist at PestSure, a self-insured group of 85 pest management companies that had 625 injuries in 2013. PestSure covers 10,800 employees and 11,000 vehicles; its data is considered an industry benchmark.
Slips/trips and falls may occur when an employee gets tangled up in gear or trips on uneven ground and falls. Employees are intent on their work when accidents happen; they may be walking backwards around a perimeter, have their hands full with a sprayer, hose or inspection tools, or be wearing backpack sprayers that affect balance, Midyett explained.
Auto accidents accounted for 17 percent of work injuries in 2013, reported Midyett. Rear-end collisions — where employees ran into the backs of other vehicles — made up 42 percent of auto accidents. The fleet remains “our biggest exposure” to financial loss, said Midyett. In-cab distractions like cellphones, handheld units and GPS systems contribute to “our inattentiveness on the road,” she said.
Add-On Services = More Injuries
Most work injuries occur “once you get outside the realm of pest control,” said Cliff Patterson, SAI Group. Add-on services like installing gutters and insulation, enclosing crawlspaces, and lawn and landscape service increase the risk of exposure.
“Lawn and landscape work tends to have a lot higher frequency of injuries than pest control does,” said Linda Midyett, PestSure. These include strains and sprains and “pinch point” injuries — like slamming fingers in tailgates — that happen while loading and unloading equipment, she explained.
PMPs “add these extra lines of services and suddenly I start to see injuries,” Midyett said.
Strains and sprains were 13 percent of workplace injuries, said Midyett. At Massey Services, this type of injury ranks
No. 1 among the company’s 1,600 employees, said Risk Management Director Kim Oakley.
Falls to a different level and falls from a ladder or scaffold made up 12 and 4 percent of work injuries, respectively, said Midyett. Billy Tesh, president of Pest Management Systems, Greensboro, N.C., had a technician fall through a ceiling from the attic; luckily he “had a good, soft landing” on the customer’s master bed, he recalled.
Insect stings and dog bites each caused 6 percent of work injuries in 2013, said Midyett.
Employees were not injured by the chemical products they use. “It’s so rare” because the industry spends considerable time educating employees on proper product application and personal protection, said Midyett. Lower-impact, less intrusive chemistries also have reduced risks, said Tesh.
When injuries do happen, managers try to get employees back to work as soon as possible. It is “the best way for them to recover and also to reduce (worker’s comp) liability,” said Michael Botha, president of Sandwich Isle Pest Solutions, Pearl City, Hawaii. Massey Services has a “full return to work program,” said Oakley. In 2014, injured team members were out an average three days and on light-duty work detail for two days, she said.
Botha admitted to being a high-risk employee, “even worse, a high-risk manager,” early in his career. It wasn’t until he fell off a two-story building onto a concrete slab, lost a finger in another accident, and almost cut a thumb off in a third that he “finally realized accidents can happen to anyone.” He took steps to change the company culture, which “almost immediately had a significant and measurable impact” on employees’ safety awareness.
Training plays a big role. It reduces complacency — that “auto pilot” mindset that results in surprise mishaps — and the frequency of accidents, said Midyett. The more you “tempt fate,” the more likely you’ll experience a severe injury, she reminded.
Experts offered these pointers to improve workplace safety:
Driver’s Ed — “The very best training investment is a solid defensive driving program,” said Midyett. A program should teach behind-the-wheel skills, provide a language to discuss driving (e.g., the other driver “invaded my bubble and I had to re-establish”), offer materials to refresh skills throughout the year (bad habits can’t be changed with a one-and-done training session), and assess driver progress and improvement, Midyett said.
Rollins launched a safe driving program in 2014 for field and office employees. (Last year, the company had more than 9,100 company vehicles on the road, driving more than 208 million miles.) The online program assesses employee skills and provides training modules to improve specific needs. The company has a zero cell phone policy to reduce distracted driving and uses GPS to monitor speeding, seat belt compliance and harsh breaking. “All of these initiatives have reduced accidents and unsafe behavior significantly, and as a company we are more focused than ever on continuing this trend,” said Rollins’ Chris Gorecki.
Clark Pest Control equips service vehicles with event recorders. The video cameras are set off by g-forces and record speed, braking and other details so managers can counsel, discipline and retrain drivers, said Risk Manager Eric Paulsen. Clark also uses technology to shut down company cell phones while vehicles are moving.
Susan Sims: The Long Road to Recovery
“It’s been a long, hard road,” recalled Chris Sims of his wife’s devastating fall from a 40-foot ladder last September. Susan Sims fell while helping Chris, owner of ECO Wildlife Solutions in Moreland, Ga., on a job site.
While climbing down, Susan didn’t get the ball of her foot firmly planted on a rung, only her toe. The ligament in her toe ripped, and her feet slipped through the rungs; she lost her hand grip and landed head first on the ground.
Susan was airlifted by helicopter to the Atlanta Medical Center where she spent 66 days being treated for a broken neck, back (6 vertebrae), 11 ribs, big toe and foot. The injury to her head, which left her with short-term memory loss and word searching issues, required 158 stitches.
Since her release, Susan has undergone three major surgeries to her neck and back, said Chris. She’s undergoing occupational, physical and speech therapies. “She’ll have permanent disabilities,” but it will take time to know the severity, said Chris. At present, Susan can walk with assistance.
Chris has played back the day of the accident in his mind a thousand times. A fireman with the Coweta County Fire Department, he returned to the site to perform an accident review and evaluate ladder set up. “Everything was done right” according to OSHA and fire department standards, he said. Susan had been using both hands and had three points of contact; the ladder never moved, said Chris.
Chris said many peers have told him, “I can’t touch a ladder without thinking of Susan.” He hopes her accident slows people down and makes them think about what they’re doing.
“Education and training prevents so many accidents,” said Chris. While Susan’s fall was a “freak accident,” he cautioned folks about becoming too comfortable on ladders. “Once you become comfortable on a ladder, you become complacent. Complacency leads to accidents,” he said.
And not just 40-foot ladders. While spending long periods in the neuro ICU waiting room, he learned of people severely injured and even killed from falling off 4-foot step ladders.
For now, the Sims are managing “by the grace of God, good friends and family,” said Chris. A Crowdrise fundraiser was started by organizers of Wildlife Control Business Builders, a trade group on Facebook, to help the couple with medical bills. To contribute, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/susansims/fundraiser/wcbb.
Take it to the Field — The best safety practices don’t come from behind a desk, they’re developed in the field, said Gorecki. Midyett urged PMPs to practice skills during on-the-job training and standardize safety training so all field trainers are on the same page.
Get it in Writing — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wants proof of employee safety training (and workplace inspections are increasingly likely). “If you can’t document it, then it never happened,” cautioned Cliff Patterson, vice president of SIA Group which insures 240 pest control companies in North Carolina and Virginia. Massey Services requires team members to print and sign their names to verify they attended each session.
Talk Safety Often — Sandwich Isle Pest Solutions employees “cover at least one safety topic during our weekly department meetings,” said Botha. Massey Services addresses two safety topics each month based on an annual schedule Oakley develops from the company’s 24-chapter safety manual. Each division hosts annual training programs that incorporate classroom and in-field safety training; new hires are taught safety during basic training.
Use Free Programs — Most manufacturers, distributors and insurance companies offer free safety training, which can reduce your risk and insurance premiums. NPMA members can access free OSHA training modules on the association’s website; QualityPro members have additional resources available, said Tesh.
Death by Stinging Insect
Between 2003 and 2010, insects and spiders caused 83 fatal occupational injuries, including the deaths of three pest control workers and 17 landscapers, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bees caused 52 deaths (63 percent); wasps killed 11 (13 percent). Seven fatal injuries were from spiders (8 percent), four from ants (5 percent) and nine from other/unknown insects (11 percent).
Seventy-two deaths were directly caused by insect bites or stings. In five of these, workers used or tried to use an epinephrine auto-injector or other anti-venom and still died.
Billy Tesh, president of Pest Management Systems, Greensboro, N.C., requires employees who are sensitive to stings to carry EpiPens so they can take immediate action if stung on the job. “We’ll pay for it and they maintain it,” he said. He does not knowingly send these folks out on bee jobs. “We try to prevent them from having that known exposure,” he said.
Massey Services team members are trained to recognize and respond to anaphylactic shock, said Risk Management Director Kim Oakley. Potential new hires are notified up front that they may encounter stinging insects as part of the job. But many workers don’t know if they’re sensitive to stings; allergies also can develop over time, she said.
Both companies have had employees seek medical attention for stings.
According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11 deaths over the eight-year period were indirectly caused by insects, such as when an insect distracted the worker while driving or caused the worker to fall from a height.
Farming, construction and landscaping had the highest number of insect-related deaths. Texas, Florida and California led states with the most fatalities.
Insects caused more than 4,600 non-fatal injuries with days away from work for every year from 2008 to 2010, estimated the bureau.
Improve Hiring Practices — Perform criminal background checks and drug testing to mitigate “questionable employees,” advised Andy McGinty, COO, LIPCA Insurance, which covers nearly 4,000 pest management and lawn service companies. Have employees sign off on the employee handbook, which clearly should state that all injuries require immediate drug testing.
Botha is experimenting with pre-hire screening programs that measure the “safety quotient” of prospective employees. Massey Services weeds out people with previous driving mishaps. “That sets the bar right there,” said Oakley.
Invest in the Best PPE — Employees are more likely to use personal and task-specific safety equipment if it works well, is comfortable and makes the job easier. “If our people don’t use the protective gear we provide, no one benefits, so we work closely with our field to get their input and feedback on how we can improve them,” said Gorecki.
Make Sure You’re Covered
The requirements for worker’s compensation insurance, which cover employee injuries incurred in the course and scope of employment, vary state to state. But even if your state doesn’t require worker’s comp or as an owner or officer you’re exempted from coverage, get it, said experts.
“A lot of health insurance policies out there exclude work-related accidents,” and a growing number of commercial clients require proof that officers and owners are covered, said Cliff Patterson, SAI Group.
Also essential: general and auto liability coverages, which often carry $1 million limits. Umbrella policies extend these limits. “We like to see all our clients carry (umbrella policies) because a million dollars just isn’t the same anymore,” said Patterson. Costs can escalate quickly, especially if a lawsuit is involved.
And talk to your agent before adding on additional services, like lawn and landscape or holiday lights. Coverage could be jeopardized if an accident occurs and the policy is not updated, said Patterson.
Incentivize — The potential to earn bonuses, trips or special parties for no workplace accidents can keep the team focused. Determine the money saved if no worker’s comp or auto claims are made; then allocate a percentage of that savings to the bonus pool, suggested McGinty.
Clark Pest Control supervisors award employees with “safety bucks” for safe behavior. Managers also have incentives and disincentives. Because branches are run like separate companies, they may have “very different premiums that they have to pay based on their loss history and current behaviors” even if they’re the same size, said Paulsen.
Engage Employees — Clark Pest Control branches have employee safety committees; during the groups’ annual summit, attendees track claims to learn how a minor injury can end up costing so much. They see how the costs impact every employee by reducing funds for raises and bonuses at the branch. “It opens a lot of eyes,” said Paulsen. People learn “it’s not just magic money that pays these claims.”
Make it Interesting — It’s hard to convince a 25-year-old technician to use the stair handrail or lift properly. Finding interesting and creative ways to get technicians to take safety seriously is “a continual battle for us,” said Darren Van Steenwyk, technical director, Clark Pest Control. Video helps: The company produces 3- to 5-minute spots each week to keep safety top of mind.
Go High Tech — Why move and scale a ladder 30 times to inspect a 300-foot-long building for wildlife entry points when you can get a better view — from the ground —with a drone, asked Tesh, who said the device is particularly useful on tall commercial buildings. His employees still have to use the ladder, but they can go straight to the animal entry point or where flashing or screening is loose. His employees also use a “selfie stick” with their smartphones to view hard-to-see areas like cabinet tops (and they can take photos of what they find). “Anything we can do to stay on the ground and not get on a ladder reduces our risk,” Tesh said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, reported these nationwide findings for 2013:
- Private industry employers reported slightly more than 3.0 million nonfatal workplace injuries.
- Musculoskeletal disorders (or strains and sprains) accounted for 33 percent of all injury and illness cases.
- The median days away from work to recuperate — a key measure of severity of injuries and illnesses — was 8 days.
- A preliminary total of 4,405 fatal work injuries — 3.2 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers — were recorded.
- Construction had 796 fatal injuries, the highest number of all industry sectors.
- The agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector had the highest fatal work injury rate with 22.2 fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers.
Anne Nagro is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine.