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YOUR COMMERCIAL MOWERS PACK a lot of punch. Their high horsepower engines make them very powerful machines, allowing your crews to cover more ground in less time. But, as your crews become more comfortable with this equipment, using it day in and day out, it can become easy for them to forget that they are operating some very dangerous equipment.
Mower blades move at very quick speeds, which means that any foreign objects in the path of the mower, or incorrect use of the mower, can potentially lead to serious injury. Some of the most common injuries happen when operators slip under a mower, are run over, their limbs get caught or they are hit with stones or sticks that have been thrown up by the machine. Mowing can be performed accident-free by combining operator know-how with safety equipment, but equipment alone shouldn’t lull anyone into a false sense of security.
Just think about those same horror stories that are retold by the news media year after year: A lawn care professional wasn’t paying attention for only a moment when he lost a third of his foot. Another operator was crushed by his mower while riding over a hill he’d cut a thousand times. Just recently, a contractor in Miami, Florida, was killed after he was pinned underwater by the weight of his mower.
These accidents, like most others that occur on the job, could have been prevented. But, because they do sometimes happen, you should constantly talk to your crews about staying safe.
Common sense plays a leading role in most rules of mowing safety, while carelessness is behind almost all mowing accidents. Taking into account the power and speed of today’s commercial mowers, even a moment’s distraction can become very dangerous. Safety begins before turning the key in the ignition; it starts with you. Following are some tips on how business owners can keep their employees safe and their workers compensation insurance costs down.
Before they mow…
One of the best ways to ensure that safety practices are followed is to require all employees to demonstrate their knowledge of safe mowing practices before they are permitted to operate the equipment. That’s the belief of Eddie Brown, managing partner of Greenside Landscapes LLC, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. By testing new employees, Brown is able to tell whether or not these people know what they’re doing—and he is even able to correct any potentially dangerous operating characteristics before they become habit, he said.
“If they don’t show proficiency, they have to go through a training period,” Brown explained. “That’s where we allow them on properties where you really can’t inflict any damage. They’re basically open in areas where they can show that they can stripe the property, by going straight back and forth.”
New employees can be accompanied by more experienced crew members the first couple of times they work in the field. This way, new people are supervised while they get accustomed to using a particular piece of equipment.
Companies should also develop on-the-job mowing safety essentials and make them mandatory for all employees to follow. For instance, many contractors require that their crews walk the grounds to be mowed to ensure there are no rocks, sticks or other foreign objects that could be thrown by the blades. This extra step may take a little more time, but it outweighs the consequences of a potential accident.
Even the best mowing plans can go wrong if a mower isn’t properly maintained. Just making sure that the blades are sharp, that the mower stays greased and that the oil is changed can help keep mowing safe, Brown said.
“It’s important to maintain the equipment properly, because that does parlay into safety,” Brown said. “If you’ve got issues with the mower and employees try to push them harder, the unthinkable can happen. If a spindle breaks because it hasn’t been greased, a blade could fly off the mower and cut somebody’s ankle really badly, or possibly take off a foot.”
One easy way to remember safety tips is to review the safety decals on the machine before beginning operation each day. Also, remind workers that the time and place for maintenance are before a job or on the sidewalk. Operators of mowers should always understand the tool they are utilizing and not let their guard down.
Beyond simply forgetting safety basics, contractors can get into trouble by ignoring safety features. Bypassing safety switches such as operator presence detectors, or removing protective devices such as roll-over protective structures, seat belts or discharge deflectors, can lead to injury or damage to property. Operators should be taught and expected to take responsibility for seeing that all safety shields and devices are properly installed before operation.
You should also provide your workers with eye and ear protection, and insist that they wear steel-toed work boots, which can provide added traction in slippery areas, and protect feet and toes from heavy objects. Safety glasses can protect the eyes in case an object is thrown, and ear protection for mower operators and workers in close proximity to mowers shields their ears and can prevent hearing loss from constant exposure to loud noise.
Also tell your workers to avoid loose-fitting clothes. All clothing should fit snugly and shirt tails should be tucked in. Long hair should be tied into a ponytail and tucked inside the shirt.
Rich Angelo knows that the best and most effective safety practices are ongoing and frequent. That’s why the founder, co-owner and executive chairman of Stay Green Inc., a landscape maintenance company based out of Santa Clarita, California, has created an elaborate safety program within his company.
One aspect of his program involves hosting bi-weekly safety meetings with his crew, a practice he began more than 25 years ago.
The meetings usually last about 15 minutes in the morning, before the start of a work day. During this time, crews are reminded about the company’s safety policies and are also given fresh safety tips.
“Our HR (Human Resources) department has a calendar of things that we talk about, in addition to any related incident that pops up in the interim,” Angelo explained. “The HR people go over it with our safety committee and safety committee people present the safety programs to the field people in the morning every other week.”
This safety committee is made up of 10 Stay Green employees, each representing a different department within the company. The group meets once a month for an hour to review accidents for the month, the near misses, and to brainstorm safety improvements. Sometimes, speakers from their insurance companies come in, to observe and add input.
“They help us to reduce our frequency of accidents and the severity of them, so that we can lower our workers compensation insurance costs,” Angelo said.
“I don’t know about other companies, but you can have all of the best intentions and you can talk, ask and whip them to death, but if the people aren’t accountable for their actions, then it doesn’t work. That’s the big goal that we try to accomplish with the safety committee.”
Another one of the safety committee’s key goals is to ensure that all employees are abiding by the safety procedures that the company has in place. Angelo said his company has a low tolerance rule when it comes to safety policies. If the Stay Green management notices that a particular employee is purposely ignoring the safety rules, this person will be written up and later terminated without hesitation.“Sometimes, that’s the only way that you can really get people’s attention—to say ‘You’re threatening your position with the company because you’re not following our safety procedures,’” Angelo said.
“That’s something we take quite seriously.”
While safety training should be ongoing, it should also be multifaceted. Instruction should consist of verbal, written and one-on-one training that reviews and models good safety practices. One of the most effective ways to install good safety practices is by showing rather than telling. Demonstrate safe mowing practices with employees. They must also look out for the next guy and make sure that he’s doing the same.
Using common sense
Because some of the most common accidents take place while operators are driving over uneven terrain, common sense should apply when deciding whether or not to use a zero-turn mower. Though it might substantially slow down the pace of your work, you might want to consider using a push-behind mower on some areas of the landscape for the safety of your crew.
Contractors should avoid mowing hillsides when there is heavy moisture. Even properties that belong to clients you’ve had for years can take on an entirely different feel and risk factor as a result of wet turf caused by either morning dew or recent rainfall.
Plan your day so that hilly properties have an opportunity to dry out.
If contractors have no choice but to mow early, use a walk-behind mower.
A zero-turn should never be used on a slope greater than 15 degrees, and there’s a test that can help mower operators check a slope in question: if the zero-turn can’t back up without the wheels slipping, avoid cutting the slope with the machine. Steep inclines should always be mowed with a walk behind mower or a mower that was specifically designed for extreme gradient mowing applications.
Mowing around the perimeter of waterways and retention ponds or retaining walls requires extreme caution. Always leave at least two cutting paths to the edge of these hazards. You can use additional tools like string trimmers to help you to reach where it’s too dangerous for the mower to go.
“Always make sure—if your crew member is mowing on a bank, such as near a pond—that he always stays well away from the water. That’s where you use the other equipment to complement the safety of the mower. Otherwise, that’s where you hear the stories of mowers falling into ponds,” Brown said.
No need for speed
In an attempt to make a company-wide commitment to safety, both you and your management should tell your crews that you’re not interested in increased productivity if it means increased risk.
“I always tell them, quality is better than quantity,” said Troy Keeley, president and owner of Keeley’s Lawn Care and Snow Removal, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
“People sometimes are in a hurry and that’s usually when you have a problem,” he said. “We just tell them to get to the job and do the job right, but don’t be an idiot about it.”
Rushing while mowing may get you off the turf and onto the next job more quickly, but it doesn’t take long for a customer to notice that they are not receiving the highest quality of lawn care. It doesn’t take a professional to notice an uneven and bumpy mow job. If you don’t take your time while cutting turf, that’s exactly what will happen—and you may lose some customers along the way.
Unfortunately, a poorly cut lawn is not the worst consequence when mowing hastily. All that it takes is one frustrated employee rushing to get the job done who decides to reach under the mower to clear the blade.
Safety isn’t just a practice. It’s a state of mind. Repeatedly remind your staff to stay aware on the job, to wear the right gear and to use common sense. By doing these things, you can keep your insurance costs low and can help to avoid a tragedy in the workplace. When you implement strong mower safety practices, everybody wins.