New and young worker training: one firm's prevention program

May 16, 2013

Landscaper using cutsawEvery spring, DeKorte's Landscaping doubles its workforce, hiring seasonal workers to supplement its permanent roster of about 15 employees. This poses unique challenges that many businesses with seasonal workers will recognize: how to get these workers up to speed, keep them and their co-workers safe during the busiest time of the year, and ensure compliance during the Ministry of Labour's annual new and young worker blitz, which began on May 1.

One response is effective orientation training, but as the company and Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) consultant Kristin Hoffman note, orientation is just the first step in an ongoing training process.

Since 1984, DeKorte’s has been performing residential landscaping and construction in the Niagara Region. Network News recently spoke with Rob Winnicki, DeKorte’s office administrator and head of health and safety for the business, and Hoffman. Winnicki explains the business’s training process below. He’s been with the 25-year-old business for four years, starting as a seasonal and then full-time employee, and assuming increasing levels of responsibility. Winnicki has hands-on experience with the work and the training provided. Hoffman, who has worked with DeKorte’s on various health and safety efforts, supplements Winnicki's remarks with her own perspective as a consultant. See in particular “What DeKorte’s doing right,” below.

Health and safety training at DeKorte's

“Every March before we kick off the season we have an almost full-day orientation meeting,” explains Winnicki. Among the topics:

  • injury prevention
  • emergency response
  • Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS)
  • company policies and procedures
  • Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requirements
  • customer service
  • Ministry of Transportation/Ministry of Labour requirements.

“All employees participate, and everyone receives an employee handbook. It contains the roles and responsibilities of all workplace parties - the first item on the orientation agenda. The handbook also contains policies and procedures, such as appropriate workplace behaviour (part of our violence and harassment prevention training), use of social media, confidentiality, and other topics. While health and safety is not the sole topic of the orientation meeting, it's a major component. The goal is to encourage safe, responsible behaviour in all respects.”

Hoffman describes the orientation training as thorough. “This is important. The stronger your first step, the greater success you’ll have with all your subsequent training.” She also sees significant benefits in involving all employees. “It's an opportunity for new workers to meet and greet other employees. Over the course of the summer they'll all be working long hours, six days a week. The sooner they become comfortable with each other, the easier it will be for new employees to ask questions.”

In addition to orientation training, all new employees receive tool training. “The foremen take their crew around the shop and the tool trucks,” says Winnicki, “and demonstrate safe operating procedures for each tool, such as power saws and saw cutters. The foremen also teach employees how to work safely around machinery such as bobcats and excavators.”

During on-the-job training, the foremen again demonstrate how to use specific tools and equipment, and then observe and coach workers on an ongoing basis. Every morning, new workers are assigned a truck buddy who helps them load and unload their truck, and complete job tasks. “The experienced employees are all very good about showing new employees the ropes.”

Once a month, the foremen also deliver toolbox talks on specific topics, such as upcoming weather, jobsite settings (e.g., working safely on the face of the Niagara Escarpment or other slopes), and general housekeeping issues to keep all employees on the same page. These talks allow foremen to reinforce key safety messages, provide refresher training, and check on workers' comfort levels with their assigned tasks. “Employees know they can ask questions any time, and refuse work they believe to be unsafe. We make it clear to them that prevention is a priority. If something were to go wrong, then it costs in many ways.”

Both foremen and workers also provide ongoing coaching and reinforcement. “When we’re on a jobsite,” says Winnicki, “everybody works together as a team, including the supervisor. This person is performing the same tasks with the rest of the crew. It’s much more beneficial this way, instead of having everybody doing something different. From a safety perspective, the supervisor can see and understand any challenges that an employee might encounter. There are a lot of tools to use and skills for new employees to acquire, so the foremen conduct lots of demonstrations and supervise hands-on learning.”

What DeKorte’s is doing right

Kristen Hoffman sees many strengths in DeKorte’s approach to health and safety. Here are a few examples.

  • Investing in health and safety as a performance enhancer. “DeKorte’s has always taken health and safety seriously,” says Hoffman, “but as the business grew, the owners felt they needed a more robust health and safety program. They understand that health and safety goes hand in hand with efficiency, productivity and customer service. One is not more important than the other. Starting in March 2012, we conducted a hazard assessment. From the assessment, we identified and prioritized office, shop, yard, and offsite activities that could cause some type of issue, whether injury, illness or property damage. From this assessment, we developed safe operating procedures and sections on the joint health and safety committee, return to work, and violence and harassment prevention. The program also contains HR elements, such as how to conduct performance reviews, and what to consider when going through a review with an employee.”
  • Delivering orientation training before the busy season begins. At DeKorte’s, this training takes place in March. “One of the biggest challenges for businesses that employ seasonal workers is finding the time to deliver comprehensive orientation training. Many employers have a narrow window in which they can hire workers, train them, and get them onto the floor. But orientation is a worthwhile investment because it helps establish a standard of performance before that first interaction with co-workers and customers. Once the season starts, it’s hard to pull people off the site for training.”
  • Providing orientation training to everybody, not just new workers. This ensures everyone has the same understanding of their roles and responsibilities, as well as the employer’s health and safety policy, practices, and performance expectations. It also helps establish a team environment in which everyone is working towards the same goals.
  • Providing new and young workers with copies of pertinent information. "Many businesses provide some sort of print material that they review with new employees, and can serve as an ongoing reference. DeKorte's distributes an employee handbook to all participants during orientation training, and goes through it with them. The handbook contains everything an employee needs to know from a health and safety and human resources perspective. DeKorte's also keeps a copy of the handbook in a binder, along with related forms - hazard reporting, first aid treatment - and required postings, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act, in each of its trucks. This is a useful practice for any business with employees working offsite."
  • Training and coaching continuously. Orientation is just the start, as Rob Winnicki explains above. Ongoing efforts keep the training fresh, reinforce key messages, and encourage employees to keep health and safety top of mind.
  • Being proactive in all aspects of health and safety management. "Proactively implementing health and safety program elements instead of, say, reacting to an order or injury is much easier and more efficient. You're not putting out fires. Taking your time and stepping back to identify what the issues could be allows you to address them proactively through programs and training before issues arise. DeKorte's has a good system in place."

How WSPS can help

Workplace Safety & Prevention Services has a range of related offerings, including: