Bend but don’t break.
This was what snow and ice management professionals were trying to tell themselves last winter as deadly cold temperatures and relentless snow threatened to drive even the most hardened professionals mad. You have a job to do and you’re dedicated to doing it, no matter what the hours or lost family time; but the body can only take so much.
That was the main lesson Mark Krog, owner of KCG Management in Algonquin, Ill., learned. More than ever, he saw his crew pushed to the brink. A couple guys literally walked away, realizing they were burned out and of no use to the operation in the condition they were in.
“They said, ‘Hey, we’re done, we have to go.’ And that’s going to happen,” says Krog. “They’re not the owner of the company, and they’re not going to push their body to that outer limit where it’s not safe anymore. And they shouldn’t.
“There’s nothing you can do when a guy says he’s burned out, especially when they’re saying they’re tired. It’s other people’s lives out there, not just theirs.”
Last winter’s incidents have prompted Krog to go with three shifts instead of two for this snow season. He took three of his most trustworthy guys in-house who are capable of making executive decisions, and they will be in charge of three crews in a continuous snowstorm. Krog believes this change will keep everyone fresh and allow them to avoid falling victim to fatigue and failure.
“When I first brought it up, I said well, if we’re running three shifts and we don’t have any guys to help, we can always pull back the third shifters. The thought process was it’s the same as running a paper company or anything else. When you’re working, you have to work, and you can’t have these guys working around heavy machinery and have fatigue. Something bad is bound to happen, and that’s when your decision-making goes out the door. You think it’s a good idea at the time, but it’s not.
“There comes a point where even though your eight hours isn’t in, you’re tired and can’t push through it and need to sit off to the side of the road for two hours. I tell my guys to let us know where you’re at and we will come wake you up. You’re talking your life – it’s not worth an account.”
Per the law, Krog’s drivers are only supposed to work eight to 10 hours, but he and some of his other guys routinely push themselves, sometimes going five to six days straight with no sleep other than little catnaps.
“One of our policies now is if you ran eight hours, you should at least take a one- to two-hour nap,” Krog says. “Some guys refuse to go home, but they have to because they’re useless to us. Even I will get angry when I have to stop working, but your body isn’t meant to be up for those periods of time. Even though you think you’re geared for it, you’re not.”
Last winter also taught Krog the importance of keeping morale up. He faced a virtual mutiny on St. Patrick’s Day when his crew, sick and tired of missing holidays and time with friends and family, wanted to celebrate. A wicked storm had just come in, and he needed all hands on deck. But the crew had worked so many hours that winter that dollars no longer mattered to them; they just wanted to go out and enjoy themselves. Ultimately, they manned up and went to work, but it took a pep talk from Krog.
“I was fighting the flu and shouldn’t have been there, either,” he says. “I listened to them and said, ‘You know, there will be a time and day when you can go out and do this stuff.’ I told them we’d been through a living hell that year, and I was sick and didn’t want to be there either. So everyone was like: ‘Fine, we’ll pull through it.’”
That was another lesson: the value of keeping everyone focused. And the way to do that is through a lot of talks. But the right person has to give those talks. In his company, that person is him.
“When I give the talk, people have a hard time saying, ‘Well, it’s easy for you to tell us to go work because you’ve slept.’ They know better than that. They know I, too, haven’t seen my family for weeks, or they’ll see me sleep in the truck when they’ve already gone home. It becomes harder for them to say, ‘Well, I need to do this,’ when they know you haven’t stopped. Lots of bonuses are paid out as a reward for guys toughing it out. But last year it got to a point where money no longer mattered. I would have paid to sleep in my own bed.”
Equipment breakdowns hurt morale, so Krog generally doesn’t keep any machine more than three years. And since they were so busy last year, Krog hired an oil-management company to change the oil in their trucks.
Despite the grueling winter, Krog counts his company as very fortunate for only experiencing minor incidents as the result of possible fatigue. The biggest was a driver who released his dump box body while it was full of salt, shifted the load and flipped the truck. But considering he heard of a lot of bad incidents in his area, including a death, he feels lucky and hopeful about moving to three shifts.
Last winter reinforced to Fred Key, regional vice president with Ruppert Landscape, Laytonsville, Md., the importance of being proactive and planning for the coming season. To him, that’s the key to avoiding any undue stress on employees.
“Typically, we start every winter the same by planning in the summer months, well in advance of winter to minimize stress or excessive time our employees have to put into that process when winter approaches,” says Key.
That planning not only includes lining up all their contracts and understanding each customer’s expectations, but also measuring each property to determine how many plows need to be on site and how long it will take to service the property; where to push the snow so it doesn’t impede traffic and drains properly in a thaw to minimize refreeze; how much ice melt to apply; and where on the site is the ice melt stored.
“Winter is unpredictable. Every storm is a little different, and you will always have inconveniences that our employees are challenged with by working through the night,” Key says. “But the planning we do in summer as we come into fall hopefully enables us to manage those services more efficiently and keep employees from getting excessively burned out.”
Ruppert minimized burnout by making sure crew members have bags packed with an extra set of rain gear or clothing so as the temperature changes, they can put more layers on or take some off to remain comfortable. Securing hotels near a job site too give guys breaks, but also to minimize their time off the site and time they spend on the road. This way, crews can get something to eat and rest as quickly as possible.
“That’s one of the biggest battles in multiple, back-to-back events is being well-rested and well-conditioned,” says Key. “You have to understand that after a certain period of time, people will wear down and get tired, so they have to get some food in them and rest. That’s why it’s good to have a second shift that can come in when the first shift goes on break and perform all the functions.”
Like most snow operations, Ruppert lost people who decided the job was too much to handle. In Key’s experience, it’s typically individuals who have never experienced snow removal before. Once again, he goes back to planning as a preventative measure.
“Also, I don’t think it’s any different than the reason people choose not to be in the industry when spring comes and there’s an early green-up and the long hard hours of cutting grass and getting mulch down begin,” he says. “We try to focus on all the things that will make it a successful operation and minimize the negative impact to the balance of someone’s work and personal life. If we keep them safe, happy and motivated, there will be a better outcome for all involved.”
Last winter taught Key to take on only the work he had resources for. For exampel, a client you do one service for all of a sudden wants you to do more because another contractor has let them down. But when you take on that extra work in the middle of all the other challenges you’re having, you run into trouble.
“When the plan doesn’t match the resources, you’re probably going to let the customer and/or employee down,” Key says. “So the focus is back to planning and understanding what resources you need to be successful and making sure we land on the right number of plows, hand shovelers, personnel and equipment to do the job.”