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Working as a superintendent for nearly 30 years and as the owner of McCord Golf Services and Safety for four years, Mickey McCord knows the golf industry and many of the people in it. In his eyes, safety training should no longer be treated as something to just pass the time on a rainy day. He doesn’t think for a second that any superintendent doesn’t care about safety, and he recognizes that superintendents have other things on their minds—after all, their performances are primarily judged based on the look of their courses. But, he says, many of them can do more to instill safe working habits in their crews.

Golf course managers and superintendents have both an ethical responsibility and, as is outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a legal requirement to communicate with their employees about safety to prevent accident and injury. Taking the following steps will help superintendents create a safer working environment, protect themselves and their ownership from legal challenges, and save money.

Ensuring employees complete initial safety training

The training process for new hires at the private 36-hole Westfield Group Country Club in Westfield Center, Ohio, begins with Cintas OSHA compliance training videos, says natural resource leader Mark Jordan. The hires then take quizzes that judge their ability to understand and process the material, next watch hands-on demonstrations in the field—whether those are in the maintenance building or on the course, then shadow crew members and finally begin work on their own.

Although new hires are legally required to complete initial safety training prior to the commencement of work, that doesn’t always end up happening, Jordan says. “If you don’t have leadership buy into that, then it’s easy to say, ‘Well, it’s so-and-so’s first day. Instead of watching training videos or doing the online testing, we really need somebody to mow greens this morning, so we’ll send him out and we’ll catch up on the training later,’” he says.

At Westfield, management trains each crew member before he or she steps foot on the course. Jordan describes a practical scenario where an employee hurts himself before completing training. “The first question anybody’s going to ask you is, ‘What kind of training did he go through?’” he says. “If you say, ‘Well, we didn’t have time to train him,’ or ‘We were going to get to that,’ that’s not defensible in the court of law. So play out the worst-case scenario, and you come to the conclusion real quick that you can’t skimp on employee training before they go out.”

Complying with regulations

When it comes to OSHA regulations, some are highly specific while others are vague, McCord says. OSHA aims to address unspecified safety issues in its General Duty Clause, which states that employers are legally required to provide a safe work environment for their employees and to inform them about any hazardous work conditions. An inability to do so, McCord says, could be considered negligent and result in court proceedings.

Documentation of employee training is critical, says Jeremy Wharton, president of JW & Associates. The company performs mock audits of golf courses, checking for safety hazards and compliance issues. On several occasions, Wharton has requested employee files from managers and has only received blank stares in return. “That’s the difference, is having that documentation,” he says. “We’ve spent a lot of time in both state and federal court, and the courts, as a whole, view even jotting something down on a piece of notebook paper far above anything you’ll ever testify to on a stand. So documentation is very crucial and it’s very lacking, and it’s not just golf; it’s in every industry.”

Addressing common safety hazards

Creating a safety training plan involves studying OSHA and state regulations, and identifying all potential hazards.
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To maintain compliance, Wharton says, spray applicators should be trained to understand that they should not apply chemicals at higher rates than what the label says. Additionally, management are required to host a hazard communication class every year. But safety training goes beyond just regulations. If spray applicators don’t wear personal protective equipment, for instance, they could be putting themselves in harm’s way. “Make sure that people find the value in what they’re doing, that they’re not just putting this stuff on because somebody told them to, but they understand that if you don’t have this stuff on, you could have some long-term issues, medical issues and quality-of-life issues down the road,” he says.

Adam Conway, superintendent of Deer Creek Village Golf Course in Cedaredge, Colo., educates his crew members on everything from how to safely operate gas-powered equipment to the importance of ear plugs. He also requires them to wear eye protection. “Even if they’re using a pruning device, like a pair of loppers, over their head and something did fall down into their eyes, we require them to wear safety glasses any time there’s anything where something could fly into their eye,” he says.

Crew members can get hurt on the golf course in a number of ways, McCord says. If a superintendent spent just five minutes making a list, he would think of many items. “He’d come up with eye safety, hearing safety, back safety, chemical exposure, heat exhaustion, sun safety, mowers and utility vehicles, just working around golfers, getting hit by a golf ball,” he says. “These are things it just takes a minute to think about, and you’ll come up with what you need to talk about.”

Creating a culture of safety

A key step in maintaining a safe work environment, McCord says, is creating a culture of safety, which means regularly bringing up safety issues and concerns with crew. “I have what I refer to as a 30-30 plan—30 seconds a day, 30 minutes a month,” he says. “And what I mean is just every day mention safety: ‘Hey guys, anybody have any safety concerns?’ ‘Anything we need to know about?’ ‘All right, be safe out there, make good decisions today.’ Just mention it every day. And once a month, hold a safety meeting.”

Essentially that exact practice has been put in place at Westfield, Jordan says. The club holds a “Daily Lineup,” where crew identifies near misses from the day before, and if there is a near miss, they talk about it. “If in a five-week stretch we have four or five near misses on the same thing, then obviously that becomes a trend, and we take a look at addressing that,” he says. Paired with the “Daily Lineup” are monthly safety committee meetings, in which, drawing from an agenda, participants talk about near misses, accidents and their causes, in addition to any purchases that need to be made that could improve safety, and any other topics related to safety that come up.

The assistant superintendents on each of Westfield’s two courses head the safety meetings, Jordan says. Committee participants include a wide range of workers from each of their crews, including equipment technicians and operators and seasonal workers. “I don’t participate in those discussions because sometimes people are a little hesitant to say, ‘Well, I saw so-and-so doing this, but I’m not going to say anything because Mark’s right there; I don’t want to throw him under the bus,’” he says. The club also invites Westfield Center’s safety director to the meetings, and he listens and provides feedback.