Chemical Application: Outsourced or In-house?

As winter approaches, managers must consider staffing, equipment, cost and safety issues in determining a course of action for spring

By Robert M. Casagrande  

Chemicals have become essential parts of the grounds care arsenal for many institutional and commercial facilities. Managers and crews have come to rely on chemicals both to improve the appearance and health of landscaped areas and to prevent potentially destructive pests from damaging turf areas.

But in recent years, due to concerns over costs, environment impact, and worker and occupant safety, many managers have rethought certain aspects of chemical application, including the amount of chemicals that are applied, the chemicals’ impact on the environment, and alternatives to tried-and-true chemicals.

Perhaps the most complex consideration of all is whether or not to outsource this function. Many managers have revisited the role of in-house staffs in chemical application. A growing number of organizations have turned to contract service providers rather than shouldering the responsibility with in-house staff.

In considering issues surrounding chemical application, including the liability, the safety and the effect on the environment, the decision to outsource this function to a contractor might sound like a reasonable choice. But before managers put this task out for bids, they should look at what they and the organization have to gain, or lose, in making that decision.

A Case for Outsourcing

Outsourcing landscape chemical application can cure many headaches for managers. The first issues that come to mind, cost and risk reduction, are tied for prominence in the mind of many managers because they travel hand-in-hand through most of these decisions.

New regulations and restrictions have made effective landscape chemical applications more complex and costly than ever before. Service providers in the chemical application business have a competency that is core to their livelihood. They are certified, they tend to be better trained, and they usually are better equipped than in-house staffs. Why? Because competition requires them to offer these advantages.

Using outside firms can reduce an organization's risk and liability. Direct responsibility for employees and equipment pass from the institutional or commercial organization to the service provider.

The provider also assumes responsibility for having the proper application licenses, managing all personnel issues, material storage and handling, code and regulation compliance, insurance, and property damage due to neglect. And in this age of terrorism, do managers really want to be responsible for those large bags of fertilizer in inventory?

Contractors also offer advantages when it comes to specialized or dangerous chemical applications. Are in-house workers applying chemicals wearing properly fitted masks? And will a spray rig be available before the West Nile virus reaches a facility’s campus? A service provider can handle these issues. Managers can just ask the questions.

Outsourcing also can ease the workload on in-house grounds care staff because managers can call on service providers in peak times to relieve in-house crews, who probably have enough on their plates already.

Service providers also add flexibility. Managers can contract with them to perform critical or periodic tasks. Specialized services and equipment can be contracted to supplement in-house services when needed.

The Case for In-House

But before managers get too excited about outsourcing this function, they must remember that all that glitters is not necessarily gold. Managers who opt to outsource chemical application tasks face the issues of finding qualified contractors and wrestling with the ubiquitous low bid.

Outsourcing also means that managers give up a measure of control. Service providers provide their services to many customers, not just one, so response time might be slow. What happens when the weather is bad and workloads build up?

When the weather clears, which facility will be first to receive service? Where does a particular facility fit into the contractor’s chemical application schedule? Can an organization count on the service provider to respond to a problem when it is needed most?

But using in-house staff for chemical applications also presents managers with a separate set of challenges. Managers who want to perform their own chemical application must provide training for applicators, and they are responsible for ensuring the operation meets code and regulatory requirements.

Knowing and keeping abreast of the requirements is part of the in-house challenge. For managers who have sufficient staff, this situation should not be an issue. Managers also will need to find out if their organizations support formal training, or does a manager have to do some low-cost research to find a source of training? Remember, like most training and certification, continuing education might be required.

Managers also must consider whether they can handle the responsibility for accurate and timely record keeping and reporting. Obtaining permits, filing reports and follow-up applications are all integral parts of this process. Remember the fertilizer inventory question earlier? Storage facilities must meet strict EPA regulations regarding record keeping, safe handling and mixing, disposing of unused chemicals, and cleaning spills.

Ensuring compliance also might require additional floor space and staffing. Managers who choose to increase staff should be aware that finding trained, experienced grounds employees is a difficult task.

A small or unprepared crew might be overwhelmed if managers choose to undertake routine yet time-critical tasks. And other work might fall behind if workers shuffle duties to accommodate major efforts when timing is critical.

Also, providing this service in-house imposes initial costs and operational and maintenance expenses for machinery, equipment, and personal protection equipment, including gloves, respirators and goggles.

In-House Benefits

Is there an upside to handling chemical applications in-house? Absolutely. First and foremost, managers are in control of the process, not an outside service provider. Managers can lease or buy the machinery and equipment that best suits the organization’s needs.

In–house staff will be able to train on equipment being used at the site and they can make sure to clean and maintain the equipment properly. Also, the application manager or technician will be aware of the codes and regulations and will know the level of expertise of the application staff.

It is rare to find a service provider who can or will respond faster to any emergency or have more ownership over a campus than an in-house department. Another advantage is that managers can more easily determine and adhere to application schedules. And in-house staff can provide almost instantaneous feedback on program successes or equipment failures.

By using in-house staff, managers can more easily determine the kind of chemicals that will be applied, and they have greater flexibility to change to newly developed or more environmentally friendly chemicals without having to amend a contract or issue a change order for increased chemical costs.

Managers also can reduce risk and save money because they can better control chemical dosages, application amounts, and the types of chemicals used on landscapes. It is common now to place just-in-time orders that can eliminate the need for storage room and carrying unnecessary inventory. Also, in-house staffs are familiar with the landscape and know the key features and details of a campus property. They can be better supervised, and they have good reason to do the job properly.

Making the Choice

Which is best — handling chemical application in-house or through a contractor? Each option is appropriate in certain situations. Outsourcing tends to work best when:

  • the application is too big for current in-house staff
  • the application is too dangerous
  • the application has to be done in a very short time and the schedule does not allow in-house staff to do it
  • the scope of the job is beyond the capability of in-house staff or requires equipment an organization doesn’t have.

The in-house option works best when:

  • the application is small and staff is available
  • the application is routine and within in-house staff’s scope of capabilities
  • an organization has someone on staff who is competently trained to manage or perform the application

Ultimately, a range of site-specific factors will shape any manager’s decision on a chemical application strategy; no one-size-fits-all solution exists. Managers who understand their landscape’s chemical needs, the skills of in-house staff, and costs associated with all viable options will put themselves in the best position to find a safe, cost-effective and successful strategy.

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  posted on 10/1/2002   Article Use Policy

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