There is no doubt that employees are your biggest asset. But every time they walk out the door and head into a company vehicle, they also become living, breathing liabilities. What they do on the job could cost your company sizeable settlements in lawsuits, damages and regulatory fines. The good news is that there are ways to mitigate the potential liabilities—and training often is at the core.
“We make sure we use chemicals correctly and by the label,” said Carmen Reino, owner of Anchor Pest, which operates in the New Jersey area. “We have to keep our guys up with the latest regulations and make sure they understand the changes.”
That means a monthly meeting for all technicians in which “we go over the basics and hit on important topics and current issues,” Reino said. “In our meetings, we always talk about the same things. It’s repetitive, but it’s a way to keep putting that information into their heads.”
Constant communications and oversight can help solve the challenge of legal liabilities.
“As a small business, we have enough to think about,” said Billy Olesen, A.C.E., operations manager for Chuck Sullivan Exterminators, based in Olympia, Wash. “Sometimes at the end of the day, you can win a lawsuit and still come out a loser because you spent so much money defending yourself, even when you’re right.”
Training to treat
Chemicals certainly can be the most dangerous aspect of pest control. Inhabitability lawsuits and other concerns are at the forefront. But in a time of constant change and regulation, ensuring that employees know what to use and how is vital. Olesen’s company trains employees to perform the same task every way, every time.
“When I go into a house or crawl space, I make sure my right shoulder is always on the wall and I go clockwise around the house. I do that every time. That way, if you get called into litigation, you don’t have to think about what you did,” he said.
That’s something he looks for in his quarterly ride-alongs, which provide a chance to “keep them accountable,” Olesen said.
Reino recently hired a new employee who will focus on training his staff. The employee also is licensed to provide recertification and OSHA classes. “We’re growing so fast, I just needed someone to help and make sure that everything is being done correctly.”
His company also audits chemical use by employee to “make sure they’re not overusing a chemical.”
It also means ensuring employees are using their personal protective equipment—every time. Reino makes sure that safety articles are posted in the company’s workroom—and that employees understand just how important it is to avoid skin contact with chemicals.
Behind the wheel
Olesen sees the biggest risks when employees get in the company vehicle. “It’s a deadly weapon that they’re driving every day. Deadly to other people on the road, and to them,” he said.
There are numbers to back that up. OSHA says motor vehicle crashes cost employers $60 billion annually. That comes in medical bills, legal fees, property damage and lost productivity. Accidents also drive up worker’s compensation and private health and disability insurance. Each accident costs an employer an average of $16,500—or up to $74,000 if an injury is involved. A fatality will cost up to half a million dollars.
Olesen and Reino both use software to assess drivers’ performance, knowing when they speed or brake hard—both of which are behaviors that can lead to accidents. They also have policies in place about distracted driving and hands-free phone use.
Policies must be enforced, though—and stringently. Failure to stick to written policies can open up a host of potential liabilities if an employee is in an accident. For Olesen, it means “zero tolerance” when someone violates the distracted driving policy. “It seems hard to terminate for that, but to limit liability, you have to enforce that policy.”
His company also checks annually with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to ensure employees have current driver’s licenses and to check their driving records. If an employee receives a moving violation or is at fault in an accident, they incur points. Receiving four points in a two-year period is cause for termination. Part of the hiring process includes pulling a driving record.
Reino incorporates the driving data into his annual reviews of employees and as a determining factor in selection of the employee of the month. “These are not just about doing your job correctly, but doing it in a safe manner.”
On the job
Once the employee arrives at the jobsite, ensuring that they are working safely is paramount. It takes simple things, like regular ride-alongs and spot checks of the work vehicles, to ensure only approved chemicals are on board.
At Anchor Pest Control, those ride-alongs include a checklist. “They’ll make sure the account is being serviced, inspect the vehicle and make sure they are in uniform.”
The uniform policy is new but provides a “comfort factor” to the customer. A policy requiring an escort into multi-family homes provides comfort all around. “In the past, there have been issues, so we made it a policy that unless the multi-family owner gives us an escort, we won’t go in. A lot of customers like it because it helps them. It can be a scheduling nightmare if there is a plumbing leak and the superintendent can’t work with us. But employees love it too. It takes a lot of the liabilities away.”
With single-family homes, inside jobs require an adult to be present, Reino said. But Olesen said that opens up another liability—one that Chuck Sullivan has found a way around. That’s the issue of an employee in a family’s residence—and knowing who you are sending into the home in the first place.
The company has run background checks on its employees for years now, typically handling it on a national basis and sometimes using an online service. But the company recently contracted with a national firm to handle background checks at the county level, too.
“There’s a legal issue with making sure the forms are filled out correctly and, if you don’t hire somebody, providing the pre-adverse action and post-adverse action report,” Olesen said. Exploring county-level records may take more time but show more results. “We had a potential employee who came back clean on the national check, but at the county level, we discovered he had 17 felonies and other charges. It was a huge wake-up call to realize that we needed to look at more than just a quick national check.”
Those background checks can bring up another legal issue—if a potential employee is not hired as a result. That’s why Olesen’s firm takes the step of the pre-adverse action—allowing a potential hire to know that the check turned up something of concern. The person has a set timeframe to dispute the finding. If not, the matter is closed. “Failing to do so could result in getting sued,” he said.
“We have enough liabilities to worry about with vehicles and technicians making a mistake or even frivolous lawsuits,” Olesen said. “We don’t need that extra headache from potential employees. So we want to make sure it’s done right.”
By Sandy Smith