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Walk the walk: Sidewalk programs

  • Douglas Freer, CSP
- Posted: December 1, 2015

Sidewalk crews serve an essential function in your snow program. They bear the elements for hours at a time, providing the detailed service necessary to ensure that pedestrians can traverse parking areas to their destinations without risking injury. Dedicated and professional sidewalk crewmembers will make your company shine when winter is at its worst. This kind of exceptional performance does not happen by accident and is not easy to achieve. Proper and effective training will help uncover your staff’s
potential and provide them with the knowledge to be successful. 

Walks are opportunities

Contractors’ opinions on sidewalk work range from it being a distraction or nuisance to, in some cases, people detesting it. Sidewalk work may be an inconvenience, but how does that measure against a personal injury suffered in a slip and fall because sidewalks were not cleared adequately? Contractors who recognize the importance of sidewalk work, make it a priority and embrace it as part of the service mix will find that it can be its own profit center. 

Pricing sidewalk work

When prospective clients share that their current contractor is charging $15 or $20 to clear 1,000 square feet of sidewalk in front of their office building, more than likely the property owner is receiving substandard service. This is an opportunity for education. We often discover that while price is important, the property owner wasn’t aware of what complete service looked like, which leads to a conversation about scope of service, liability and expectations. Often the current contractor may not offer a complete sidewalk service; and in many cases, it’s because they don’t know how. Given the low pricing it will be difficult for that contractor to build an effective sidewalk program.   

Sidewalk work needs to be priced in a manner that allows your company to pay for the crew, equipment, training and other essential elements. Analyzing your true costs will help you determine what you need to charge in order to ensure sidewalk work is a successful profit center.

Successful sidewalk program

A successful program is a combination of a number of elements. It begins with the company’s attitude and approach to sidewalk work and how it is prioritized. Successful sidewalk programs are priced to ensure resources are available to support the priority service. Crews are properly equipped, trained, developed and supported to ensure successful service can be delivered regardless of the event.   

Importance of training
Sidewalk crew members carry an enormous responsibility for public safety. Like the other employees in your company, your sidewalk crews are emergency responders. Fire, EMS and police personnel are trained, have graduated from an academy and receive continuing education and training. The majority, if not all, of the training and education your sidewalk crew receives will come from in-house training. Many crewmembers are new to the industry and are performing snow work for the first time. Returning crewmembers will benefit from refreshers and updates to your training program while new crewmembers will be brought up to speed so they can perform at the same level as your experienced staff. 

It is never too late to train, and mid-season between events offers an ideal opportunity. Training will improve the crew’s confidence, ability and belief in the professional service they provide. 

New employees should receive basic and necessary introductory information about the company. This orientation will cover a number of basic personal elements that each employee needs to understand, such as review of company policies, how to clock in and out, breaks and lunch policies, dress standards, and keeping personal information up to date with the office. You should also cover the topic of general readiness, being on call, and making sure to take steps to ensure proper rest and nutrition occur so each team member can contribute positively during a storm event. Your orientation will also cover basics like driver training and related policies, communications and general safety expectations. Your orientation also serves as an introduction to what your company does and the importance of snow work and the priority that your company places on professional performance. 

Standard work

Your definition of standard work may be different from another company’s standard. Standard work is the minimum standard at which you expect your crews to perform in order to meet your clients’ needs and expectations. To differentiate your company’s service and to mitigate liability, you may choose to set the bar higher than your client’s expectations. Your standard work is the basis by which you build your service program. Service details that may vary from site to site are covered under scope of work. 

Crews should be trained on how to perform your defined standard work. Using pictures is a good way to demonstrate the end result: What does good work look like and how do you identify substandard work? We use pictures of “out of scope” work and have trainees identify what’s wrong with the picture.

How you achieve the desired result is based on site layout, client expectation, available crew and equipment, and production timeframes. 

Adjusting for storm type
. Your definition of standard work should address the service process under varying storm scenarios. How you manage a slow accumulating event will be different than how you approach a fast-accumulating or heavy event. Should your crews adjust their strategy on heavy events to ensure primary and high-priority areas are serviced, leaving secondary areas until a lull in the event or during cleanup? Your protocols during a post-storm cleanup event may be different than during an active event. It may not be practical to achieve the high expectation during an active event, particularly if crew and/or equipment capacity is limited.  

The service you perform during the overnight prior to store opening is generally more detailed and can more readily be coordinated with plowing crews. However, during daytime events, you may find those protocols are not effective. At night, sidewalk crews should be able to push snow into the parking lot so plowing operations can carry the snow away from the walk. However, during the day, your walk crews may not be able to push snow past parked cars to make the snow accessible for plow crews; or the drive lanes and parking lot may already have been serviced, meaning that sidewalk snow needs to be staged in a temporary location until piles and residual snow from the previous day’s storm event can be removed during overnight cleanup. 

Proper equipment selection. Equipment selection impacts your crew’s productivity and overall capacity. Investing in equipment can help expand your crew’s capacity. Selecting the right equipment for the storm event or site conditions is an important training point and should be part of the standard work. Just because a snow blower is on the truck doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for the job. Using 36- to 48-inch-wide snow pushers might be more appropriate, particularly on lower accumulations or on snow with less moisture content. In many cases, particularly when stairs, ramps, parking bumpers and other obstacles are involved, shoveling or hand clearing is more efficient. Discuss equipment selection and provide guidelines based on production standards, site layout and crew capacity for optimal results. 

Ice control applications. Light, even applications of material ensure complete coverage without over- or under-application. If crews improperly apply material, ice may remain and unsuspecting pedestrians may slip and fall. Over-application is wasteful and can frustrate property managers who must clean up excess material that is tracked into the building. Crews should be trained on proper application methods and rates based on the storm, weather and site conditions. 

Scope of work
While your crews will perform their standard work when clearing walks and applying ice control, the scope of work (SOW) will provide details that are unique to their site and service requirements that are not addressed as part of standard work. 

SOW may include the area that needs to be serviced; expectation for bare pavement; service frequency; ice control product selection; deadlines; equipment to be used; interaction with in-house staff; and reporting procedures. 

How will your crews know the details for each site? What is standard work versus special instructions? Tasks that are not part of your standard work but are in the client’s SOW must be clearly identified and communicated to the crews. 

Communicating expected SOW

Standard work should be trained so that the minimum service standard is understood and consistently and automatically performed on each site. Exceptions or items worth noting for individual properties should be communicated or included in a written or electronic reference guide that crews can consult as necessary.

Preseason training should include a review of the properties and SOW for each site. In season, feedback should be provided to the crew after a manager or supervisor performs a quality audit on completed work. 

Manage for improvement
Your training program will evolve to reflect your priorities and emphasize areas where improvement is necessary. Add training over time to address specific concerns or areas of weakness. The development of your training program is a process, just like the training itself. 

Your sidewalk crews have a lot of responsibility within your overall snow program. Providing effective and proper training will provide more consistent results for your company, reduce your liability and increase your client satisfaction and hopefully client retention. If you receive more frequent events, training may be a little easier and more effective, particularly for new crew members, since you can provide more immediate feedback and coaching to help improve their understanding and performance.

Examples of standard work
Many details can be defined for your standard work. Do you:

  • Clear the full width of the walk?
  • Hand-shovel and clear curb lines?
  • Clear the front of dumpster/compactor areas by hand?  
  • Clear all emergency exit doors?
  • Clear the full width of stairs or a small section - even if they are large?
  • Clear around parking bumpers?
  • Pile snow adjacent to walks, in the parking lot or have it plowed away?
  • Clear around front of store retail - vending machines, DVD rental machines, propane exchanges, etc.
  • Hand-shovel curbs around the front of the store and handicap areas?
  • Clear access around fire apparatus?
  • Apply ice control in all cleared areas?
  • Apply ice control using a spreader or by hand? What is the application rate?
  • Change your approach during daytime storms versus overnight cleanups? 
  • Prioritize service areas during heavy or continuous snowfall?

Standard work identifies services that are expected for each client. This photo shows examples of areas that need work such as overapplication and sloppy bumper clearing.

Property profile/client chart sheets
Properties may have exceptions or important considerations supplemental to the standard work that need to be communicated to crews for them to effectively provide service. Routed crews that service multiple sites need to understand the needs of each property. While a dedicated sidewalk crew for a property will receive specific training, documentation in the form of a snow response plan or property notes will help to remind the crew and bring new crew members up to speed. 

Sample items included on a profile sheet:

  • Basic site information including address
  • Site contact name, phone number or other important information
  • Service map for a visual definition of areas to be serviced or not serviced
  • Area measurements and production rates if necessary
  • Hours of operation, including important times such as employee arrival times
    and shipping/receiving hours
  • Service notes and directions for plowing, sidewalk clearing and ice control
  • Identified snow storage locations
  • Client’s expectation for bare pavement during various types of storm events
  • Prioritization of areas during heavy or continuous events
  • Ice control products to be used outside of standard items
  • Equipment to be used, or not used, in defined areas

Douglas Freer, CSP, owns Blue Moose Snow in Cleveland. Contact him at

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