The Public Doesn’t Understand the Life of Small Business Contractors

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The Public Doesn’t Understand the Life of Small Business Contractors

 The tree crew reported for work despite an injury to Bill, the company owner, who is seen operating a compact loader the day after it overturned in an accident. (Photos by Jim Kneiszel)

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Bill the tree guy showed up at my house just like he promised — first thing in the morning and along with his whole crew ready to take down a huge maple and do other trimming. He was moving a little gingerly as he jumped out of his truck cab to greet me, and he admitted straight away that he was in a world of hurt.

I’d hired Bill in the past to trim and take down trees. He’s a no-nonsense contractor I respect for his good customer communication, his friendly, hardworking team, and fair pricing for the immensely dangerous work the guys perform. He reminds me a lot of the septic system installers I work with while putting together this magazine. 

Bill explained he had a mishap while putting equipment away after the previous day’s work. Driving a wheeled loader toward a transport trailer, he ran over a misplaced chainsaw, which acted as a ramp and flipped the equipment on its side, tossing him to the ground. Luckily no part of the caged loader pinned Bill, but he suffered deep bruises and was feeling great pain.

“I’m not gonna be climbing or go in the bucket today,” he said, assigning the rest of the crew to do the heavy work at my place. I asked him if he was taking pain medications like ibuprofen, to which he replied he’s never taken pills in the past and he’s not about to start now. I told Bill he could put off my job for another day if that would help him take time to heal.

Doing it every day

But then Bill said something that reminded me of a constant challenge for all small-business contractors. And it made me think specifically of the onsite installers I have met over the years who overcome many issues to get the job done. And my respect for Bill grew as he gave me an answer that day.

“I can’t take a day off,” Bill said as he winced while stretching his injured shoulder. “These guys all have families to feed, so we have to work. If I don’t work, they can’t work. And if they can’t work, none of us will get paid. I haven’t taken a day off in 15 years and that’s just the way it is.”

When the public sees contractors scurrying around — whether it’s replacing a roof, landscaping a yard or installing a septic system — they don’t always stop to think that these well-organized teams are also like a family. They care for one another. They face hardships together. When it comes down to it, they probably spend more hours together than they do with their spouses and children.

Homeowners — or customers, as it were — never know what’s going through contractors’ minds when they show up at your place for work. In this case, it was a somber moment when Bill arrived, and it wasn’t just because of his injuries. You see, another tree professional was killed on the job in front of my next-door neighbor’s house just a month previous. Bill knew all about the incident, a morning that I also can’t shake from my memory.

A terrible toll

It was just after daybreak one morning when I heard a piece of machinery fire up outside my bedroom window. The city arborist crew had been cutting down dead ash trees across the street the previous afternoon and I figured a worker was in the bucket truck starting to cut down some more limbs. I rolled out of bed and parted the curtains from my second-story window and was unprepared for what I saw next.

There, lying on his back, arms and legs outstretched in the middle of the street, was the city worker. Not moving. His fellow worker was pacing in the street, talking on his cellphone. My eyes moved to the bucket truck. The lift was still extended high in the air, the basket intertwined with the limbs of a tree. The realization hit that the worker hadn’t just collapsed. He fell from the bucket.

For several hours, firefighters, EMTs, police, city officials and tree crew members came to survey the scene. I learned later that the worker had died. The police came to my door looking for surveillance cameras that might explain what happened. All that morning I had difficulty working, thinking about the trades workers we serve through Onsite Installer, how dangerous their jobs can be, and the critical role safety training plays in their lives. 

I often promote the importance of following OSHA regulations in the editorial content of this magazine, but what I witnessed that day really brought home why I need to constantly repeat that safety emphasis. There is really no margin for error when following best safety practices in the world of trimming trees from a bucket or excavating a hole for a new septic tank. One misstep can have catastrophic results. 

Bill knew all about the worker’s death — as it had sent shockwaves through the local tree industry. The same would happen in the installing community if a worker was hurt or killed in a trench collapse, for example. Like installers might be reminded in a morning toolbox safety talk, one of Bill’s crew told me why it’s so important to follow all safety guidelines.

Make it home

“The most important thing is we have to make it home to our families every night,” the worker said before snapping his harness to the bucket and heading up into the trees. “I have my OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] certifications, I use all the safety equipment. It’s so important.”

The average person doesn’t really appreciate the tremendous efforts made by our blue collar workforce. They don’t understand the lifetime of skills developed, how the physical labor can take a toll on a body or the inherent risks of working with heavy equipment or in excavated areas. The customer just wants the job done properly, on time and within budget. Spare them the details.

However, having worked with excavators and wastewater professionals for nearly 20 years, I realize the training required and sacrifices made by these often unsung workers. They deserve our gratitude for doing a job the rest of us are incapable and unwilling to do. And now when I see a crew at work, whether I’m just driving past or taking photos for the magazine, I think of the many dangerous, necessary jobs being performed every day.

So when the last bit of brush had gone through the chipper that day, you can bet I gave Bill and his crew a big tip and a thank-you for a job well done. 


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