On the Safe Side

This article is also available in Spanish

Ample training and collaboration can protect landscape workers from risk.

By Leslie Wren, ASLA

Annette Wilkus, FASLA, remembers a meeting of the Teardrop Park construction management team in the early 2000s. The clients, Battery Park City Authority and Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, had inquired how their maintenance staff would safely tend the plantings of Rocky Slope, a tall and steep boulder embankment south of the Ice-Water Wall, a weeping rock formation representing the natural geology of the New York area. Wilkus, a landscape architect then with Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), was serving as the landscape architecture inspector, a subconsultant to the construction manager, and immediately recognized that maintenance of this feature would not be safe without a design intervention. She and Laura Solano, FASLA, a partner at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the project’s landscape architect, collaborated with a structural engineer to deliver an inventive solution: a series of hurricane ties in subsurface concrete anchors, invisible to recreational park users but accessible to park staff, for safely rappelling up and down the slope using a harness.

That experience was eye-opening for Wilkus: “Designs now are so incredibly complicated, much more than they ever used to be. And owners fall in love with the design because there are always very pretty pictures, but they never think about how something is going to be maintained.” Teardrop Park’s clients demonstrated both foresight and concern for the maintenance staff and showed Wilkus why landscape architects needed to be more informed in that approach to practice. In 2005, she launched her own firm, SiteWorks, to specialize in life-cycle consulting for the planning, design, construction, and management of high-performance landscapes. And from the beginning, Wilkus established the firm’s fundamental approach with the motto “safety first.”

Eight years ago, “Landscapes Over Time,” by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and William S. Saunders (LAM, March 2013) brought national attention to considerations for landscape maintenance and working with field operations personnel in the design process. The article remains one of the most read on this magazine’s website. This spring, two declarations—one academic, one professional—demanded a deeper examination of landscape architects’ relationship with laborers. In March, Michelle Franco of the Ohio State University presented “Landscapes and Invisible Labor” at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture virtual conference. Franco called out landscape architecture’s inclination to look past the construction phase and those who execute it, and the convenience this allows the profession to ignore the ethically thorny classism in its relationship with disenfranchised and undocumented laborers. And in April, Metropolis published “Landscape Architecture Has a Labor Acknowledgement Problem,” an article collectively written by the staff of the landscape architecture design studio Terremoto. It challenged firms to recognize the value of landscape laborers—by respecting their knowledge, including them in design and construction, and advocating for fair employment conditions and wages—as part and parcel of sustainability-minded practice.

These shots across the bow must necessarily involve a reckoning with the wide gulf in occupational safety between landscape architects and landscape laborers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), between 2011 and 2019, landscape architects suffered an average of 67 Occupational Safety and Health Administration-reportable occupational injuries and one fatality each year. The injuries were all attributable to falls, slips, and trips; overexertion and bodily reaction; and contact with an object or equipment that caused sprains, strains, tears, bruises, or contusions. The fatalities all occurred during transportation incidents.

During the same time period, BLS reported that landscape workers (grounds maintenance workers and first-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service, and groundskeeping workers—the two most general categories for landscaping workers) suffered an average of 20,238 OSHA-reportable occupational injuries and an average of 226 fatalities each year. Additionally, in 2019, grounds maintenance workers (the catch-all category for nonsupervisory landscaping workers) suffered 229 workplace fatalities—a rate of 19.8 deaths per 100,000 workers—and earned a 10th-place ranking on BLS’s chart of “Civilian Occupations with High Fatal Work Injury Rates.” Laborers’ injuries were largely due to falls, slips, and trips; overexertion and bodily reaction; and contact with an object or equipment, but also were caused by violence, exposure to harmful substances and environments, transportation incidents, and fires and explosions. These incidents caused sprains, strains, tears, soreness, and pain; cuts, lacerations, and punctures; fractures; bruises and contusions; and a variety of other injuries. Although these laborer safety incidents were not necessarily connected to landscape architects’ design decisions or construction administration, they reveal the stark reality that the people who create and maintain landscapes do so at a much greater risk of injury or death than landscape architects face when designing them.

As a firm, SiteWorks takes these statistics seriously, comprehensively building consideration for landscape laborer safety into the firm’s practice. “The whole idea of maintenance and safety and worker safety—a lot of that has to be driven from the ground up,” says the SiteWorks principal John Payne, ASLA. In addition to actively hiring staff with either previous work experience in the construction trades or interest in learning about field operations, SiteWorks requires completion of the OSHA 10-hour Outreach Training Program, a class on workplace safety, health, and hazards, as well as occupational safety rights. All of the firm’s employees have and maintain this certification, and one has completed a more in-depth 30-hour program.

SiteWorks’s approach to safety has evolved with the times. Earlier in its history, the firm incorporated safety practices into its office manual; in 2014, however, a project required a stand-alone reference document, and the SiteWorks safety manual was born. “Our safety manual, actually, is both for in the office and also on site for us,” Wilkus adds. In addition to detailing safe attire for construction site visits, it also provides guidance on safe behavior, including refraining from e-mailing or texting while walking around (equipment operators may not see you), being vigilant around heavy equipment, and watching for contractor adherence to OSHA standards and protocols. “On site, you’re always sort of watching to make sure that a contractor is being safe,” Wilkus says. SiteWorks’s safety manual is updated annually; in 2020 a section was added addressing COVID-19.

Some design projects have safety and maintenance needs specific to the project type. A golf course is a sprawling, intensely managed landscape; typically, just over one-third of an average course—more than 25 football fields of turf for an average 18-hole course—is mowed every morning. Depending on the character of the course, many maintenance tasks involve navigating potentially treacherous features such as slopes, sand traps, and pond edges. And the stakes for efficient, successful maintenance are high: Daily course condition has a major impact on the experience, quality, and speed of play—factors that affect the ability of the course to collect greens fees and attract memberships.

Richard Mandell, ASLA, is the owner of Richard Mandell Golf Architecture in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and for him, close cooperation with the course superintendent is a requirement. “Whether it’s golf architecture or landscape architecture, [if it] does not consider the user—whether the user is maintaining or participating in whatever you’re doing—if that’s not a consideration at all, then it’s just art.”

Mandell’s design process begins with a walk of the potential course site with the superintendent, followed by a survey to capture the superintendent’s goals and concerns, a working relationship that continues throughout construction. “The person [who] maintains your golf course needs to be in on what you’re trying to accomplish, and you need to be on the same page,” Mandell says. “We minimize steep slopes mostly for ease of maintenance and, in return, safety of maintenance equipment.” Other design decisions affect everyone. Mandell says avoiding steep pond edges is better for plants, golfers, and maintenance staff. “Because the big picture of a golf course—whether the slope is x percent or x+1 percent or x-1 percent—doesn’t mean a hill of beans for the golfer at the end of the day, but it could for the superintendent.”

BrightView is a large, publicly traded landscape company with 22,000 employees that works across the spectrum of landscape design, build, and maintenance. For a company of its size, labor safety policies affect the experience of thousands of people—as well as the efficacy and viability of the business. Po-Sun Chen, a vice president at BrightView and a general manager in charge of the Orange County, California, maintenance market, says that a safe design/build/maintain process is built intentionally by company leadership. “Safety is something that has to exist in you culturally. You have to make it important.”

Chen doesn’t think there is anything a landscape architect could specify or design that would cause field operations contractors to abandon their own safety protocols. But there is something designers who don’t work in design/build can do at the beginning of a project that has significant safety implications for landscape maintenance workers: Advise the client to budget sufficient money to pay for essential maintenance work. “The reason that somebody on a landscape construction or landscape maintenance team would rush through their work is because they’re constrained for time,” Chen says. “If they know that they only have a day and a half to do work that—honestly, any sane and reasonable person would tell you we should take at least five days to perform—they are going to rush through it. They’re going to cut corners. They’re definitely not going to think through their safety protocols. And that’s when bad things happen.”

Annette Wilkus, FASLA, (left) discusses safety and management with a colleague on site. Image courtesy SiteWorks.

Which is exactly what SiteWorks wants to avoid. “Contractors are your friends, right?” Wilkus says. “They can teach you so much about maintenance, about how things work, how they address things, how they take care of themselves for safety reasons.” Landscape architects who don’t draw on that expertise miss a tremendous opportunity, she says. “I can guarantee you nobody thinks about this. Landscape architects don’t think about it. The architect for sure doesn’t…. It’s not even dawning on them what’s going to go on. So, unless we as a profession are thinking about this early on, it’s not getting done.”

Leslie Wren, ASLA, is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University.

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