Operator Training Takes Many Forms

Big company, small company, it makes no difference. The people who operate your equipment need to be properly trained prior to going into the field. How this is accomplished, however, varies from company to company and depends on several variables, not the least of which are company size, services offered, type of equipment, and relative experience of employees.

“Our training program has evolved over time,” explains Nathan Dirksen, construction manager for Dennis’ Seven Dees in Portland, OR. “How we train operators today differs considerably from how we trained them 10 years ago. We used to conduct group training sessions that included some classroom work, hands-on training, a skid-steer rodeo, and an obstacle course. Today, our foremen do the actual training.”

The 27-year company veteran gives two primary reasons for the change: company growth and foremen experience. “We have grown dramatically over the years. Today, we have 27 construction foremen. Add to that number their crews, and group training would be unwieldy. Furthermore, foremen average 10 years with our company. They’ve been through the training and certainly understand how to safely operate equipment.”

Dirksen defines three levels of training, depending on the equipment. For small equipment such as chainsaws, tillers and sod cutters, foremen instruct employees how to operate each piece of equipment and then observe their operation. The equipment on which they’ve been trained is documented in a career development file.

Foremen also instruct the operation of larger equipment such as trenchers and track loaders. The training not only includes safe operation and basic maintenance like checking the oil level, but also involves the proper loading and unloading of the equipment. Forklift operation requires another level of training and certification that entails classroom and hands-on instruction, along with a written test.

“Employees carry a laminated card that indicates what equipment they’ve been certified to operate,” Dirksen says. “New cards are issued as they receive further training and certification.”


Mower Training

Mowing and maintenance equipment training follows a different regimen, explains Joe Poulter, maintenance production supervisor. “Before the growing season, all new employees go through two days of training, one day of orientation and another day of actual on-site instruction.

“During orientation, we introduce new employees to the different types of equipment used on sites,” Poulter says. “Safe operation is always number one on all equipment, from riders all the way down to string trimmers. They learn the basics of how to operate the equipment, including what type of fuel is used in each. Before the day is over, employees get a chance to actually fire up the equipment.

“On the second day, we take everyone to a work site and break into groups where they receive hands-on instruction on both operation and technique. We show them what kind of lines we want on the turf and how to exit a lawn. Edging beds with a string trimmer is always a challenge for new employees. Efficient operation of equipment is something they learn over time.”

Poulter noted that ideally there’s a third day of training when employees demonstrate the skills they’ve been taught. New employees who come on board midseason are trained by their foremen.

Dirksen and Poulter mention a couple of other caveats to operator training. Employees who drive vehicles for Dennis’ Seven Dees go through a DMV background check. Anyone receiving a DUI isn’t allowed to drive for the company for at least three years after the infraction, and the Oregon Department of Transportation requires a medical exam every three years for employees who drive anything over 10,000 pounds or pull a trailer.

A few commercial clients take safety to an even different level, Dirksen and Poulter add. Before working on site, one client requires employees to attend a four-hour safety class. Once on site, it’s 100 percent gloves, eye protection and hard hat for everyone.

Dennis’ Seven Dees operates 20 maintenance crews. David Snodgrass, company president, Landscape Industry Certified, is a past president of the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) and champion of the association’s STARS safe company program available to PLANET members and nonmembers alike

Snodgrass says, “Mower training used to be primarily about operation, e.g. how to operate a mower, make straight lines with it, and enter and exit a property. The reality is, however, that with every piece of equipment there are safety aspects to be discussed. There’s no better time to talk about them than during training.

“If you believe, like I do, that most if not all accidents are avoidable, then it just makes sense to do everything you can to avoid them. For new employees, there’s no better place to start than with training.”


Basic Training for Walker Users

When you operate 20 mowing crews, all equipped with Walker Mowers, training new hires on how to operate them should come naturally. It does for veteran foremen and supervisors at Sposato Landscape Company in Milton, Delaware. Tony Sposato, company owner and president, shares the following discussion points his trainers highlight.

Operating basics: starting, stopping, turning, backing up. New employees learn how to operate a mower, slowly back and forth at first, with the blades disengaged. They drive around obstacles, too, becoming accustomed to turning without bumping into objects with the catcher box.

Engaging blades and mowing. We teach new employees to engage blades at a lower rpm and to turn without making divots by keeping the drive wheels moving. Knowing how to back up onto trailers to dump clippings into our trucks is an important skill for our operators. Foremen often intercede here until an employee feels comfortable performing the task.

Filled catcher boxes. We impress upon operators to stop mowing when they hear the beeping that indicates catcher boxes are full of grass. Ignoring the sound will likely lead to a plugged chute, which they are also trained to unplug.

Mechanical overview. New employees receive a primer on how to grease the mower, change the blades, and blow off the machine at day’s end with either a backpack blower or air compressor. They likely won’t be required to grease or change blades (which we do at the end of every day), but foremen cannot do everything all the time.

Special conditions. We also conduct weekly training sessions designed to accommodate unusual mowing conditions. Exceptionally rainy periods, for example, may call for special care when turning to avoid divots or being especially aware of poor footing on hills. Extremely dry, dusty conditions put an exclamation point on keeping the engine compartment clean.

Sposato’s team trains new employees a week prior to the start of the mowing season. Like Dennis’ Seven Dees, maintenance equipment operators are taken to a site and instructed how to operate several different pieces of equipment. Sposato says, “This training time is huge for new employees, but it’s something we cannot offer to those who are hired during mid-season. Instead, they receive more personalized training from their foremen and supervisors.”


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