What should greenkeepers do now that they’re back working again?

By Alistair May 24, 2020 07:11

After two months of lockdown, most greenkeepers are back maintaining golf courses. But what safety procedures should they now follow, and what damage has been made to the course with limited maintenance work done to it in April and May? Noel MacKenzie reports.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela.

So here we are ‘conquering the fear’. The good news is that golf is once again free to be played, albeit under special rules, and this seemed to arrive very suddenly with little warning … hopefully the message I tried to get out into the industry at the end of March and into April was heeded somehow.

Greens may be more like surfaces coming out of winter than late spring surfaces so they will need to be eased into condition.

For those that did not see it, the suggestion from myself was that remain ready for the opportunity to open again by putting a course into a ‘holding pattern’ of maintenance to keep it well and safe, but not let it deteriorate too much.  What was the practice that happened on the ground? Well, from what I could make out from my limited contacts it was possible to identify three different categories of courses:

1. Courses that carried on normal maintenance.

2. Courses that adopted ‘essential maintenance’ working patterns, furloughing off staff, but keeping deterioration at bay by normal maintenance of the course in a less intensive manner. All to adopt a ‘holding pattern’ with a view to bringing the course back into play within a few days once the word was given.

3. Courses which stopped all maintenance and did very little (and I have seen a few horror photos already of baked and cracked greens, and so on).

Those courses that fell into category 2 managed to maintain their courses in line with ‘essential working’ in my opinion, normally with 50 to 60 per cent of the staff furloughed. Courses in category 1 will have the burden of high overheads yet no income and courses in category 3 will face a steep uphill struggle – something which may be the death of the course / club if the deterioration has been too severe.
I for one was very pleased that golf courses in most of the UK reopened in May, since golf is a sport that can be pursued relatively safely and it seems there are probably links to better health by being outside in the sunshine (it is likely that vitamin D made from sunlight exposure may help fight the Covid-19 infection and this is being researched further). Another reason greenkeeping is a good career choice at present?

So, where do we go from here? What are our priorities?

Clearly the threat of the Covid-19 infection has not gone away and therefore staff safety remains paramount and working practices must remain adapted. I suggested to the industry measures to ensure employers exercise their duty of care for its workers and follow requirements under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and all subsequent legislation. Managers may also need to consider the impact of the lockdown and its partial lifting on psychological health, with workers, especially those with family members, at high risk too.

Surface fibre accumulation may be an issue after essential maintenance only.

Staff wellbeing

Managers must conduct a risk assessment of all staff working practices and behaviours assessing the risk of virus transfer and exposure.
Particular measures likely to be necessary are:

· An action plan for a worker becoming sick / injured during work. First Aid personnel need to be aware of the new risk.

· Ensure workers maintain social distancing in the work place and always maintain a minimum two metre distance from each other.

· Barrier PPE may help to reduce infection risk if used appropriately but used badly may have no benefit.

· Ensure staff work independently.

· Where possible individual machines should be allocated to identified workers. · All machinery will be washed down with detergent based cleaning solution and, if possible, antiviral (not antibacterial) cleaner.

· Walky-talkies / radios are a particular risk and shall be individually assigned and wiped with antiviral cleaner at the beginning and end of shifts. If possible, chargers shall be separated and taken to workers’ homes to avoid cross contamination. Communication through personal mobile phones may be a safer option?

· Staff should wear gloves as far as is possible and follow rules on good PPE use.

· Communal areas should be closed and staff should bring all the following items in individually: Work clothing, food and drinks eating and drinking implements.

· Working entry and exit points where community contact is likely to take place shall be wiped down at the beginning and end of the day and at the beginning and end of all breaks.

· Breaks should be taken in isolation / deploying social distancing.

· Lone working shall be carefully monitored and staff ‘check–ins’ completed on at least hourly intervals if undertaking any activity alone.

· Toilet areas shall be fully stocked with soap and have hot water available and each user to sanitise the handle and seat and doors and taps on each occasion used.

· Any enclosed areas shall be as well ventilated as possible.

· Tool stations are a risk area and workers will need to sanitise any communally used tools and generally use gloves. Ideally each worker should have their own tools for common use items.

· Footpaths and community access routes through the golf course may place a duty of care to sterilise gate fastenings and erection of Covid-19 good practice guidelines.

· Managers will have to take an active role managing workers to not leave them to their own devices or engage in other work – management of staff must be their priority.

· Managers may also have to account for mental health anxiety around staff coming to work for a variety of reasons. Workers should not be coerced or pressured into working if they are uncomfortable with the situation.  Managers must be mindful that if a worker lives with a high risk person their return to work may raise anxiety or not be advisable at all.

· All staff must report any symptoms and follow government advice if unwell regarding self-isolation and disease control measures.

· All persons should act as if they carry the virus, rather than being free from it so the duty is to avoid spreading the illness rather than simply personally avoiding it, thus prevention is also avoidance.

· Artisan sections should be suspended for the time being to reduce contact risk.

After many weeks of neglect the bunkers may need reconditioning.

Course management

Asking yourself which of the categories of course I identified earlier that your facility falls into will identify what the challenges are you are likely to be facing now play is again possible.

Category 1 – Possibility of budget shortfalls later in the year unless revenues revive swiftly or owners have generous budgets despite lack of income.  Such courses are in the minority.

Category 2 – Courses in this category will be needing to bring surfaces back up to speed and secure the future of the club. Revenues may remain suppressed with clubhouses being used far less although this will also see reductions in overheads too, possibly. The key element of the greenkeeping team should be:

1. Restore normal playing conditions as swiftly as possible without causing undue harm to the course by overstressing the turf. It is not OK to simply drop the greens cut from 6mm to 4mm and consider the job done – it is far more complicated than that.

2. Manage player expectations – after the lockdown, players will come out just relieved to be playing golf. However, the ‘honeymoon period’ will not last long and they may be expecting it all to be fantastic within a week or so! The reality is that things have been run on a restricted budget and manpower for some time and the course will have deteriorated in places. Bunkers are likely to be particular features needing attention, but there will be other areas. Communication with membership is something that all management roles will need to engage in with the players. Probably the second most important job of managers, after staff safety, will be to manage player expectations.

3. Play turf management catch-up – some operations will have sat on the back burner during the ‘essential maintenance only’ period. To this end operations may be needed to avoid the course slipping backward this year. Key operations may be: Reconditioning putting surfaces to optimal performance; Adjust mowing heights and patterns (accounting for softer greens too); Aeration; Verticutting; Scarification; Topdressing; Rolling; Repairs; Overseeding; Vandalism damage repairs; Bunker conditioning; Redefining work; Weed and pest control; Irrigation system checks and repairs; Bunker restoration; Hazard repairs such as ditches, water features and so on; Tree safety checks; and Path repairs and so on.

Bearing in mind that resources may be restricted, it is essential the most important operations are prioritised. Although it may seem an extra expense, engagement with an independent agronomist is a good investment to aid that prioritisation without commercial pressure being bought to bear. Politically, having an outside advisor informing the players to be patient will always go down better than the course manager / head greenkeeper or general manager doing so. Also it will aid the development of a planned return to course conditions rather than a chaotic knee-jerk response to play starting again.

Each course will have reacted differently to lockdown. If located in the north of the country and exposed to cold conditions then it is very possible that the course may not have declined or altered very much at all. However, if your course has had good growing conditions, has had people walking on it and letting dogs scamper about, had vandals and has a sward containing a lot of annual meadow grass then the situation may be very different. Each return to use plan will therefore be different.

The main challenge is to avoid overly shocking the grass by a sudden increase in both foot traffic and maintenance activity. Many greens will have become overly dense and choked by lateral growth. Seed heads may be a particular issue too on Poa annua dominated surfaces. Surfaces may be softer and more easily marked than normal and fibre is likely to have built up on the soil surface. Whatever the issues, they will need tackling systematically and now is the time for managers to manage! They will have to think of the turf requirements and also keep a very close watch on staff behaviours and work patterns and really supervise worker behaviour.

Category 3 courses – golf courses that have not been maintained or simply run on absolute minimal inputs will have deteriorated fast. I warned back in early April that such clubs may fail as businesses or take months to get back on an operational basis, by which time customers will have migrated elsewhere. The necessary works required to get operational again will be contingent on the events and conditions on site. It is strongly recommended that expert advice is sought to assist in this process so that any effort is entirely relevant to the work needed.

In summary, we are lucky that our sport is one which can be practiced safely during this epidemic, however, it is important that we do not become complacent to the risks that prevail around us. Managers are really going to have to manage staff behaviour and remain on the case for transmission protection to the utmost. Continued reference to the health authorities and government guidance will be essential to do this and there must be a high degree of everyone on the team taking responsibility for everyone else’s safety.

Noel MacKenzie is an agronomist and the director of Sports Turf Consulting.

Tel: +44 (0)7739 505862

Email: info@sportsturfconsulting.co.uk

By Alistair May 24, 2020 07:11

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