Jerry Mathis – Down to Earth Landscape and Irrigation
- Written by: Zharia Jeffries
- Produced by: Julianna Roche & Eden Monsen
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
For some, the phrase “safety is a top priority” is little more than a face-saving slogan. For Jerry Mathis, it’s his life’s calling and the basis of a budding career in the facilities trade.
A retired Air Force flight engineer, Mathis spent more than 20 years flying some of this country’s top government officials across the country—including the secretary of state, vice president, Cabinet members and others. He was also in charge of the safety program for Air Force One. By the time he retired, he’d logged over 2,700 flight hours without any major incidents.
Now he oversees the safety of more than 1,400 employees as director of safety, fleet and facilities for Down to Earth Landscape and Irrigation. Located in Orlando, Florida, the company is the third largest landscaper in the Southeast, with 40 facilities and over 400 company vehicles.
Prior to Mathis joining in 2019, the company did not have a dedicated safety director. He’s quickly reduced the company’s incident rate by 15 percent.
“It’s rare to have an opportunity to refine a safety department on my terms,” says Mathis. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s also a chance to create an environment where people can trust in their company to keep them safe.”
Founded in 1989, Down to Earth offers services ranging from large-scale residential homes to golf courses and commercial and resort properties. Mathis says the landscaping industry in Florida is saturated, requiring Down to Earth to be more detail-oriented than its larger peers to remain competitive.
“Larger landscapers are more cookie cutter,” he says. “That’s why we do more of the detail and enhancement work, including installing plants and trees and redoing irrigation systems.”
Today, his role involves everything from what personal protective equipment the staff must use to automotive coverage for the company’s 400 vehicles. Mathis is also in charge of managing the company’s fleet systems, including a GPS system that tracks all vehicles.
After arriving in 2019, his first initiative was creating a fleet safety program. That ensured all employees were properly trained to use equipment including commercial-grade mowers, weed whackers and chainsaws; notifying management when equipment wasn’t operating correctly; and so on.
“Every day I have 1,400 people out using this equipment. It’s easy to hurt yourself or lose a finger, so having them trained is super important,” Mathis says. “The technology alone on some of these machines is truly something to behold. Proper training is key to reducing accidents.”
A new safety culture
He says at most places he’s worked (including Disney, Boeing and the Air Force), safety protocols were established, even if more complex than they seemed. In joining Down to Earth, the challenge was larger: to recreate an entire safety department and safety culture.
Included in Mathis’ broader safety efforts is a facility audit program, where he and his staff inspect facilities to make sure they are up to code and conducive to business.
One pillar in Mathis’ safety program is a training course that includes procedures for 18 pieces of equipment. For the first five days of the 30-day program, new hires watch training videos, go through driver training and are assigned to a crew that will lead with the hands-on learning experience.
After three weeks, during which they’re required to wear a green vest, employees are tested on their skills. Once the test is complete (and assuming they’ve passed), they’re issued an orange vest and sent to continue the rest of their training on the job.
“So far, we’ve made a positive mark on the company,” says Mathis. “My goal is always to have zero injuries. As of this year, we’ve lowered our incident rate by 49 percent.”
In addition, the company has cut its experience modification rate to well below one, which is the rating brand new companies start out with.
“Any number higher than one does not look good for a company and will often prohibit the company from gaining clientele,” he explains. “When the number is below one, the company can get any job it wants, without paying a premium to do the work. So, we’re off to a really good start.”
Safety is about the people
Mathis says his safety-first mindset wasn’t created by chance, but by experience. As a flight engineer, he operated as the “third pilot,” a job requiring him to know more about the plane than the actual pilot. When he wasn’t flying, he managed the safety wing for Air Force One.
After retiring from the Air Force, Mathis did a stint as the environmental health and safety lead for Boeing, working in the company’s Springfield, Virginia, facilities.
In 2016, he joined the Walt Disney Company as an occupational health and safety manager at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. Looking back, Mathis credits his time at Disney for teaching him how to approach projects creatively—a skill he says has proved invaluable during his time at Down to Earth.
“I’m able to come up with creative solutions to very complex problems, all while being responsible for the safety of over 1,400 employees,” Mathis says. “There are no such things as easy fixes in my job, but I don’t think I have ever been one to take the easy way out.”
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