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Industry Insights: Landscapers, Don’t Be a Buzz Kill

Hawaii and Minnesota are just two of the states moving toward poison-free landscaping — from training on how to steam-kill weeds to legislation preventing the use of insecticides. Lawn-care professionals and landscapers are abuzz with potential solutions, but they are also worried about lawsuits stemming from environmental activism.

If you are in the landscaping business, you may have a perfect opportunity to bring new, more sustainable methods to your customers — and prevent liability allegations as well.

Pesticide exposure health concerns

In January 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released proposed interim decisions on the use of neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides used widely in gardening, landscaping and farming. The measures are geared to reduce the negative ecological effects of treatments. The rules also include stipulations on personal protective equipment for those working with the chemicals and, notably, eliminate the use of imidacloprid on residential turf due to health concerns.

These measures build on 2017 actions from the EPA to protect pollinators from pesticide exposure. Knowing and following EPA requirements and other laws and regulations is a must for landscapers, gardeners and all in the lawncare profession. Failure to do so could put your company in the cross hairs of government inspectors and lead to serious fines and even shutdown of your operations.

Expanding on federal efforts, some states are seeking ways to reduce toxins in the environment. For example, the county of Kauai in Hawaii is working with an environmental group to train county workers on landscape maintenance using steam to kill weeds that invade walkways. Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota have gone even further, with legislation to ban certain insecticides. Penalties could be substantial.

While honeybees get a lot of the attention — there was a nearly 40% drop in their population in 2018 — many different pollinators can be affected by pesticides and weed killers. And runoff from mistimed applications can affect stream, lake and river ecosystems as well.

Landscapers and lawncare companies that maximize their environmental sensitivity may be able to bolster their reputations and avoid liability exposure for ecological damage.

Actions you can take

Several organizations have sprung up to help the industry design landscaping that naturally suppresses pests, diseases and unwanted vegetation. These groups also provide guidance for the maintenance of lawns, parks, golf courses, and all sorts of public and private lands without dependence on chemical-intensive treatments.

Some practices may seem simple, but time is money. Maintaining blade sharpness, for example, is a practice that reduces turf susceptibility to disease and the need for chemical treatments. Does your company rigorously enforce equipment care and build in time and money for it?

If you are inclined to reduce your chemical-liability risks, you can transition many of the sites you care for to organic maintenance, which is better for pets, children and wildlife.

Have you considered the use of compost, manure and other natural nutrients instead of chemical fertilizers? These may ultimately cost less than your current, manufactured supplies and could significantly reduce negative impact on the environment.

Remember that your company is part of an industry that is increasingly in the spotlight as environmental concerns get broader media attention. While you may think your risk of a liability accusation is narrowly limited to damage to property or injury to an individual, that isn’t the case.

More strategic considerations for loss exposures are needed. What home remodeling company ever thought it would be dragged into asbestos lawsuits 40 years ago? But that liability is a major concern today. Lawn and garden chemicals may be the next long-tail liability issue, and you need to be prepared.

Protection for your business

The good news is you can protect your business, your employees, your customers and the environment with organic design and maintenance practices. Securing quality insurance is another, crucial, risk-management action.

While a business owner’s policy provides some basic protection, you may need to increase your coverage to help you with claims regarding the chemicals you use. For example, what if they cause a rash, make a pet or child sick, or discolor a wood structure? Your general liability policy doesn’t cover that; it also doesn’t cover your “professional” actions — those associated with the actual practice of your skills.

And all those involved in grounds care should talk with their insurance professional about landscapers pollution liability insurance. It can help with legal and cleanup costs if your company is accused of polluting the environment.

Your duty of care as a groundskeeping company is growing. Implement modern loss-control practices and a strategically focused risk-management policy to create a truly sustainable business for the long term.