Investing in safety technology is a smart move for large companies with budgets to match. But is it realistic for small, family-owned businesses? In this interview, Simon Rabjohns explains that investing in safety technology is not only an option for small businesses – for some, it’s absolutely essential. Garrett Benskin and Alan Combs (Missouri Employers Mutual) discuss the company and then share the interview. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which you can also hear using the player.
Today, we’re talking about a recent visit we had with Simon Rabjohns of Skweeky Kleen Windows out of Bourbon, Missouri. Simon recently received a safety grant from MEM, and with the money from the grant he purchased some extendable water poles to help clean high rise windows. We traveled down to shoot some video and ended up having a great discussion that we decided to turn it into a podcast.
In our interview, you’ll hear Simon’s passion for safety. He really sees safety as a valuable consideration when managing a business. He has a small business with only a few employees, but he’s very safety-minded. He knows what he needs to do to take care of himself and his people not only today, but tomorrow, a month from now and five years from now.
You hit it on the head; they’re a small business. I think he said he has five external employees, plus him and his wife. One thing that hit home with me is that when Simon talked about his employees, I could tell that they’re considered part of the family. All the employees, he either knew them before hiring them, or they were referred and highly recommended. He has a vested interest in his employees, not only because of the business but because of the people they are and what they mean to him and his wife.
And you could really see that in the different ways he’s trying to protect his people. Even just by getting some of them off ladders – get them down where they’re on the ground more and reducing those risks.
On the building that they were working on when we visited, the upper windows were between 40 and 45 feet high. Normally, without the extendable poles, they’d definitely be working on ladders, which has the inherent fall risk. He said with the extendable poles, they have the ability to work from the ground and reach 70-foot-high windows. It has been a major improvement for his business, and it’s actually enabled him to expand his business to some buildings that were too tall to work on before.
Here’s the interview:
Tell us a little about the history of your business.
We began back in 2001. I was just a one-man show at that time. We started off in commercial and then added residential later. First, my wife worked with me; we worked as a two-man crew, and then we gradually started adding employees. Currently we have five employees in the field, and a couple of part-time employees working in the office. We’re up to about 400-500 residential clients now, and probably about 60 commercial clients.
Bourbon is in central Missouri; how far do you travel for work away from the home office?
We travel quite a ways – probably about a 70-mile radius. Everywhere from Rolla in the west all the way up to the city of St. Louis in the east. We have clients in Ladue, Clayton and Chesterfield. Up north, we go as far as Hermann and Washington Union, and then down south we’ve gone as far as Salem and Potosi.
You were one of our policyholders selected to receive a safety grant during this cycle. What type of equipment did you end up purchasing?
As you can see, we do a lot of high work. This building here is probably about 45 feet tall. So, we use water-fed poles in order to help our reach. That keeps us off of ladders. It also means that we don’t have to rent high-lift equipment, which has its own inherent dangers. We used our safety grant to buy some more high-reach sections for our poles, and also some control bars for the poles to help prevent repetitive motion injuries.
And before you had the poles, how did you clean those high windows that are 50-60 feet off the ground?
I do have a 40-foot ladder that is an absolute beast to try to move; it’s almost a two-man job to move it. We have had some jobs down at the Lake of the Ozarks using that ladder, but it was tough to move and very dangerous. By using these water-fed poles we have drastically reduced the amount of time we have to spend on ladders, which makes us much safer and more efficient in our work.
The pole you’re currently holding has a large diameter. You were telling us earlier about the handheld control bars. Can you show us?
Sure. These are cool control bars; it’s very easily accessible for your hand. It’s just the right size and gives you a lot of strength when you’re working on the window. You can imagine if you had to hold this large, three-inch diameter pole – and grip it for hours on end – the kind of strain you’d be putting on your wrists, shoulders and elbows. This control bar gives you more control over the pole. Once you’re 75 feet up with a flexible pole, there’s a tremendous amount of leverage there. The bar gives you power to keep control of the pole, keeping you safe and preventing repetitive motion injuries.
In this video, you’ll also notice that we use a rocking motion as we’re cleaning with the pole, rather than doing everything with our arms. That allows us to use our core and leg muscles, the strongest and large muscles in the body, to take the brunt of the strain. That reduces fatigue on your shoulders, arms and wrists.
That makes perfect sense, and I did notice that with several of your crew using the extendable poles. That was great.
While we’re talking about repetitive motion injuries, you might’ve noticed I’m wearing these funky spectacles. These are belay spectacles – they started in the rock climbing industry. They’re prisms, and allow you to look forward, but actually look up. The prism bends the light at 90 degrees. When you’re working at a height it allows you to be looking straight but looking vertically. It prevents a lot of neck and shoulder strain. It’s okay to do that for an hour or two, but you can imagine that craning your neck like that for eight hours a day, several days a week throughout the year would take a toll on your body. We employ every kind of technology available to help us reduce the strain on our bodies, avoid injury and have a longer and healthier working life.
Going back to the extension poles: Was this a purchase you would’ve made on your own if the grant program wasn’t in place?
Probably not. It’s an extremely expensive piece of equipment. What I have in my hand here is well over $2000. Something else about the poles: we use primarily gardener poles. They’re made out of ultra-homogeneous carbon fiber. We felt that for our employees’ sake, in terms of the repetitive motion of using a tool over and over again for hours on end, we wanted the lightest and best available. This is a professional’s pole. And we are a very small company, so we probably wouldn’t have been able to purchase it without the grant. That’s one of the reasons we’re so grateful to MEM for allowing us to extend our reach and opening up a lot of new horizons for us in terms of expanding our business.
Speaking of new horizons, what are your goals for the future of your business in terms of growth?
Our short term goal is to start a second crew next year. We have one truck at the moment, and I’m hoping to start a second truck. One crew would handle the west region and the other would handle the east, and then I’d probably bounce back and forth between the two. Once we have sufficient people trained, I’ll have two crew leaders and I’ll spend more time in the office, working on the business instead of in the business.
To wrap up: If you could brag on your business, what would you want to tell listeners about Skweeky Kleen Windows?
We are a family business: honesty, integrity and dependability are extremely important to us. When residential clients allow us into their home, they’re extending a lot of trust and confidence in us, and we want to make sure we never let them down. That’s why we thoroughly vet our employees. Most of our employees, I knew before they were hired or they came highly recommended. We’re very careful about who we allow into the company, because we are inside people’s homes. Many of our customers say, “I’m not going to be there; I’ll leave the house open, just lock up when you leave.” That kind of trust only comes when you’ve built up a good reputation. So our reputation is extremely important to us, and we plan to keep providing that kind of service for years to come.
That was a great visit with Simon. He covered a lot of things that, honestly, we didn’t expect when we went into the discussion. You could really see how safety conscious he is for himself and his employees.
I’ve had a couple of conversations with him since then, and going back and forth I found out a little bit more about why safety is so important to him. When he was a kid, he was working with his dad in a sheet metal shop when his dad had an accident. It’s stuck with him – the importance of safety, paying attention to the little details and doing the extra things that you need to do to stay safe.
You hit on a key: at some point, all of us have known somebody or been involved in an accident ourselves. It’s always keeping that top of mind and knowing that at any second, if you don’t focus on the safety aspect of what you’re doing, those accidents can happen and sometimes with very bad outcomes.
That goes back to what Mark Woodward said about his chainsaw accident in our Safety Myths Debunked episode. He’s a safety expert and it happened to him – it can happen to any of us.
Yes, going back to the Safety Myths episode, and what Simon alluded to in the interview: you always have to have safety on the brain. Any time you’re not focused on safety is when things are going to pop up and there’s a risk of having an accident. That’s why safe has to be your top priority any time you’re doing work, and especially for small businesses.