About Gas and Diesel

With all the volatility in the oil futures market, and the constant fluctuation with gas and diesel pricing, some contractors (snow, landscape, irrigation, tree care, etc.,) are looking for ways to curb gas and fuel costs. Downsizing vehicles is certainly one way. Of course, some vehicles are specific to the industry of choice (snowplow trucks, salt trucks, lift trucks, bucket trucks, etc.) and cannot be changed to more fuel efficient models due to the inherent nature of their use. However, other types of vehicles can be altered to save on fuel. Sales and management staff don’t need four-wheel-drive club cab trucks. In some cases, downsizing to half-ton (or smaller) trucks can allow these folks to do the same job without the horrendous mileage associated with the big, bad rigs we all used to drive. Sales and some management staff (if previously supplied with company vehicles) can drive Prius-type vehicles rather than gas-guzzling trucks. Some plowing contractors have gone so far as to supply field staff with hybrids in summer and trucks in winter.

Another avenue open to contractors is pre-purchasing gas or diesel fuel in quantities which allow for proper budgeting of such costs. All contractors can project fuel usage by looking at past history. Historical data is normally available to the contractor who has even a rudimentary accounting package in place. Once determined, approaching the fuel supplier about committing to a set amount of gas or diesel for a finite period of time can bring some relief to the volatility all vehicle operators are facing. You will need to have in-house fuel storage in order to do this, but that expense is finite too. Once purchased, these systems can stay in place almost indefinitely.

Contractor’s Evaluation

At the end of the winter season, we often send out questionnaires to customers asking for a critique of winter performance.  When an unfavorable reply comes to the office, contractors will bend over backwards to ensure the customer concerns are addressed in a satisfactory manner.  Why not do the same with your subs?  Give them feedback after the season, in writing, of what has bothered you (or your customers) about their performance.

Maybe the sub’s reporting or invoicing wasn’t up to par.  How will they know if no one tells them of the issue?  A written evaluation is not at all out of line.  YOU are the subs’ customer.  You might want to act like it.  Too many times you could get the distinct impression the contractor is afraid of the sub.  You give them way too much credit.  They need your money, just like you need your customer’s money.

Billing and Invoicing

If most of your plowing is done ‘per push’, you can easily find out how much revenue you have generated during that event.  Go back to the Dispatcher and the fact that the Area Supervisor has given an accounting of what was plowed during his/her shift.  An administrative assistant can take this information directly from the Dispatcher’s route sheet documents or from the Area Supervisor’s route sheet documents.  A simple billing program can be altered to have the pertinent language already there as a ‘macro’ so that generating an invoice in the computer is an easy task.  If all accounts have been plowed, this makes invoicing all that much easier.  In this fashion, and assuming that someone actually takes the time to do the billing, it is possible to know within a very short time period how much revenue you have generated.

Again, this is for companies with only a handful of vehicles/units moving snow.  Larger companies can afford to have this entire package automated so no human hands need ever get involved in the process.

Importance of Production Workers

When it comes to sidewalk snow clearing production, snow companies need to evaluate the importance of the production workers.  It is difficult, at first, to accept the reality that the production worker in snow management operations (often the lowest paid and generally an on-call part time employee) should be the focal point of our management systems.  A production unit for sidewalk snow removal is a crew that includes labor, equipment, material, and transportation.  The labor for one production unit usually consists of one crew leader (or working foreman) and one or more crew members.

The crew leader has emerged from the eighties and nineties, as the specialist of the new millennium, with an expanded role in managing the snow on sidewalks and ice melting on any specific site.  The difficulty and expense of communication links and direct supervision of mobile service crews, coupled with the need to have an experienced, knowledgeable employee on the property at all times (as is the case with most on-site crews) has reshaped the value and job description of the traditional working foreman or crew leader.  Organizations that recognize this expanded role for the crew leader will streamline their organization by eliminating the middle managers and production supervisors.  They will redistribute these assets all the while upgrading the role of the modern day sidewalk crew leader.

Staying on Top of Injuries

Unfortunately, some injured employees may not adhere to the prescribed follow-up procedures and/or appointments thus causing inadequate or insufficient attention to proper ongoing care.  The Injury Manager should stay on top of the situation by communicating with the injured employee regularly.  In some cases it is advisable for the Injury Manager to accompany the employee to the aftercare doctors visits to ensure that the employee is adhering to the proper care program.  Keep in mind that (essentially) you are footing the bill for the employees care through your insurance premiums, thus necessitating your participation in getting the employee ‘healed’ and able to return to work.  At these aftercare visits the Injury Manager has the right to talk with the physician to ascertain what is needed in order to assist with the recuperating process.  Often, the Case Manager from the insurance carrier will also attend these appointments to keep accurate records of the entire process.  Good communication is a key element in getting the employee back to work as soon as possible.

Part of the injury management process is to have a ‘light duty’ work program in place so that the injured employee can go back to work, earn a paycheck and feel productive.  Additionally, the Injury Manager can oversee the remainder of the recuperation process too.  Sometimes this light duty work schedule must be tailored to the individual employees’ immediate injury needs, however prior extensive studies show that getting them back to work is much more advisable than allowing the injured employee to sit around doing nothing productive.  Interestingly enough, it is a proven fact that performing light duty work often accelerates the desire to return to regular work status and positively affects the recuperation process.

Key Personnel

Some very important key personnel in any storm management system are the support staff.  These support staff may be just one person if you are a small entity.  In fact, for companies who are just starting out, the dispatcher may be the support staff too. If you should decide that you don’t yet need or require separate employees to do these tasks, so be it.

The Area Supervisor will begin the initial paperwork flow.  This person obtains pertinent field information such as start and end times for plow personnel, what was plowed, when site conditions in the general geographic area of responsibility.  Samples of such documents are contained in the appendix.  Once the snow event is over the Area Supervisor turns in this paperwork to the dispatcher.  The dispatcher checks to make sure that all lines are filled in, and that all the required data is there.  This should be done immediately upon being turned in, and should be done with the Area Supervisor present.  If this is not possible due to logistics, then the document should be faxed to the Dispatch office for processing.

Communications in the Snow

The Area Supervisor (in the field) should be able to communicate with all of the crew leaders, or crew members assigned to him.  It isn’t really cost efficient to supply all plowers with dedicated channel two way radios, and Citizens Band (CB) radios are all but gone from the snowplowers communications arsenal.  Some still use CB’s for communications on a larger site, but “direct connect” capability and “Nextel” units effectively put an end to widespread CB use.  Area Supervisors need to be able to move plow units from site to site if necessary and keep himself updated as to the progress of any given crew towards completing their ‘run’.

In some operations, the Dispatcher has access to all field personnel via I-Phone Group Texting, or Group Direct Connect capability.  Their combined phone, texting and two-way radio capability also has a much wider range than any standard two-way trunk radio system. Now, the two-way instant communication range of the current systems is measured in thousands of miles.  For example, a Sprint/Nextel user in Hartford, CT can have instant two-way communications with another Sprint/Nextel user virtually anywhere in the United States.  Hartford to Honolulu is now commonplace (although not for snowplowers).  Over the years, costs associated with such communications systems has dropped dramatically.

Keeping Track of your Crew

Once the decision is made to begin plowing operations (after the storm has begun), you need to get the word out to those that are working with, and for you.  A reverse pyramid system usually works best.  This is where you make the decision to start plowing and then place calls to the supervisors of a particular area.  They, in turn, then call out the crew leaders or crew members and tell them that “it’s time”.  Supervisors should be keeping track of when crew members were called out and when they started working – if you are paying them by the hour.  The same holds true when the snow (or ice) event comes to an end and plowing operations are terminated.  Keeping track of end times becomes the responsibility of the supervisors or crew leaders – again, IF you are not using an automated software specifically designed to track your field operators.  Have the crew members call into your office to turn in their hours as a double check of what the supervisors are turning in.  This will help eliminate discrepancies when it comes time to pay your employees, or subcontractors.

At some point, it will be necessary to justify having someone out there who will not be responsible for generating revenue.  These will probably be Area Supervisors.  These Area Supervisors usually are responsible for overseeing what goes on with the routes they are responsible for.  These individuals are a non-income generating expense that needs to be covered as overhead.  They will “put out fires” and cover for those that don’t show up that particular snow event.  Additionally, these individuals will be responsible for customer satisfaction.  Most companies will pay these individuals more money for the additional responsibility.

Battle Against Sidewalks

One of the most difficult areas snow contractors have to deal with is “sidewalks”.  Most contractors shy away from this kind of work.  And, with good reason.  Too often we experience labor issues associated with getting guys to get out in the elements and battle the snow first hand.  It’s much different than from the warm cab of a truck or loader or skid-steers.  It’s cold.  It’s nasty.  It’s generally a thankless job that must be done without benefit of mechanical devices that would make the job easier.  Or – better stated – the mechanical devices that ARE used in sidewalk snow clearing are sometimes not designed for the activity.  Skid-steers work well, but are severely limited in some instances.  They don’t work real well in light snowfalls, and require some rather expensive attachments in order to make them efficient.  They are heavy and transporting them can be problematic, especially during monster snowfalls.

Work Related Injury

Having a “Panel of Providers” is essential to the work comp process.  Employees are notified when hired, that there is an approved panel of medical providers that they are to see in the event of a work-related injury.  While insurance carriers have a recommended panel of physicians, hospitals and medical facilities that they work well with, the insured (your company) should be able to have input into what doctors/facilities are listed on the Panel.  These providers have the same goal as the company.  That is to be certain that the employee receives the proper care and treatment as well as to get them back to work as soon as possible after recovery.

Should the work related injury require hospital or medical attention, the person in charge of injury management has the right to, and should accompany the employee at the doctor’s office, hospital or medical facility.  Some companies will insist that the Injury Manager be with the injured employee as soon as physically possible after the injury occurs and then stay with the injured employee through the first hours of treatment, whether it is at a doctor’s office, the hospital or the physical rehabilitation center.  Often times, the injury is such a non-emergency that it can be treated in a doctor’s office instead of a hospital thus saving considerable dollars for the company or the insurance carrier.  A good Injury Manager can assist in this initial determination.  Once at the doctor’s office, should the medical professional decide that additional treatment is necessary, the injured employee and the Injury Manager can be transported to the recommended facility. The Injury Manager should then communicate with the doctor in charge so as to ascertain what additional immediate treatment is needed as well as what aftercare may be required.