Feb. 1 2004 12:00 AM
he ubiquitous mower may be the bread and butter of your landscape business; it?s probably the most frequently used piece of equipment in your arsenal, but mowers can also be the source of some serious safety issues. Take the worker who injured himself attempting to unclog a mower. Both the vendor and the landscape company were drawn into a costly and time-consuming worker?s compensation claim after the injury.
Unfortunately, the accident was the result of the landscape contractor?s poor safety practices. In fact, in this incident, the company?s safety practices fell short in a number of areas. They neglected routine maintenance and failed to provide adequate and ongoing training. Finally, the company also overlooked language barriers for Hispanic employees. Specifically, what happened? The Hispanic worker had been given little or no formal safety training, and no one explained proper equipment operation in his language. Instead, he learned to operate and maintain the mower by observing other employees ? who just happened to be practicing unsafe procedures. Moreover, the company had continued to use the mower on jobs, despite its failed braking device. Bob Walker, president of Walker Manufacturing in Fort Collins, Colorado, says, ?Some contractors consider a mower functional as long as it mows. That?s very short-sighted.? This type of tunnel vision could wind up costing your company, due to hefty workers? compensation increases. Accidents can be expensive, even if personal injuries don?t occur, because the equipment can be damaged. That can mean a costly repair, and take a key piece of equipment out of operation, resulting in cancelled or rescheduled jobs ? neither of which creates happy customers. There are other intangible benefits associated with good safety practices. Safety can be an employee morale issue. Walker notes, ?When a company?s management sends the message that safety is a priority, it goes beyond production. It?s a good morale booster.? Laura Bird, of The Groundskeeper in Tucson, Arizona, says, ?The benefits of good safety practices can have a domino effect. Employees become more confident in their ability to do their jobs correctly.? They may also serve as another pair of eyes for management, noticing and amending their co-workers? poor habits. Comprehensive and extensive mowing safety Instilling safe mowing practices is not a one-shot deal. The best and most effective safety practices are ongoing, multi-faceted and attuned to employees? needs and skills. Take The Groundskeeper. The company holds weekly safety meetings where workers can review any incidents that occurred during the week, and brainstorm ways that the incident could have been prevented. For example, during a recent weekly meeting employees discussed an accident that occurred after a worker decided to clean a mower?s wheels while it was still on the lawn. He lifted the mower and wound up slicing his finger. Bird says, ?This gave us a chance to review how to clean wheels.? Employees got a quick refresher course. Always clean the wheels on a sidewalk or concrete, which provides better balance than a lawn, and clean the wheels before the equipment is running. Good safety practices go beyond the ad-hoc weekly review. They consist of verbal, written, and one-on-one training that reviews and models good safety practices. The manufacturer?s operator manual is a great place to start. It?s also a good idea to find out if the manufacturer provides a Spanish or video version. Some landscape contractors are able to translate documents themselves, but it?s a lot handier when the mower manufacturer does it for you. You may not need to look far for a translator. Gachina Landscape Management in Menlo Park, California, has appointed a company safety officer. The employee happens to be Hispanic and bilingual, so he not only translates written material from English to Spanish, but also translates during company meetings so that Spanish-speaking employees don?t miss important safety messages. Your company may not be large enough to appoint a safety officer, but you may be able to find a bilingual employee willing to take on some translation and safety tasks. One of the most effective ways to instill good safety practices is by showing rather than telling. With mowers, there are a few major items that cover many situations. John Gachina, of Gachina Landscape Management, points out, ?The potential for back injuries is great.? That?s because workers are often catching and lifting clippings in a bag. Repeatedly lifting and moving heavy bags incorrectly can lead to back injuries and missed work time. The answer? Demonstrate safe lifting practices. Ask employees to look out for the next guy, and make sure he?s doing the same. Never mind bad backs ? spinning blades and fingers can be a recipe for disaster. All it takes is a frustrated employee rushing to get a job done who decides to reach under and clear the blade. At The Groundskeeper, the company stresses that the time and place for maintenance are before a job, and on the sidewalk. This, like other safety measures, takes a bit of time in the short run, but can save time and money in the long run by preventing accidents. Other maintenance issues go hand in hand with safety. Walker notes, ?Maintaining equipment is critical for safety. Most equipment has safety features designed to protect operators.? The best bet is to familiarize yourself with the maintenance schedule, and follow it to the letter. A few maintenance items are standard, no matter which type of mower your company uses. It?s important to sharpen mower blades; the accident potential is higher with dull blades because the worker won?t be getting the cut he needs. Safety features are subject to wear and tear. Take the braking system. A worn-out brake equals lost safety protection. Simple checks such as testing the security of the mower blade and the brake don?t take a lot of time, but can make a big difference. Another periodic item to be reviewed is the operator seat switch. It takes less than a minute to start the engine and rise off the seat to see if the engine stops. It?s also important to take the time to check tire pressure. Properly inflated tires mean optimal traction and safer operation. Some landscape companies commit a no-no and remove the deflector shield, which leaves the operator vulnerable to an injury caused by a thrown object. It?s not uncommon for a landscape contractor or employee to attempt to modify a mower to do the job faster. A notorious example is removing or bungee cording the discharge chute. This helps throw grass farther in wet conditions, but also eliminates an important safety mechanism. It?s important to keep original pieces in their place, and to remind employees to re-install all shields and parts after routine maintenance. Incident review and routine maintenance are just part of the comprehensive safety package. Companies should also develop daily on-the-job mowing safety essentials. For example, The Grounds-keeper requires employees to work around the property to remove foreign objects before mowing. Bird affirms, ?It takes a little bit of time, but it beats the consequences of a rock hitting a windshield.? Other recommendations include avoiding the set of wheel ruts from the previous mowing session. This aids stability, as do wide turns, which provide protection from a roll-over. A number of newer mowers come equipped with a handy roll-over protection system (ROPS). This is a great safety feature, but it does not mean that the mower cannot be rolled. In fact, it can have the opposite effect, by creating a sense of false confidence. The operator may mow in unstable areas that he would have avoided previously. Many safety issues apply to both walk-behind and riding mowers. It is a good idea to develop and enforce company guidelines about when to use a push mower. Steep slopes and those with water at the bottom should be limited to push mowers. One area where different rules apply for push and riding mowers is loading and unloading the mower from the truck. Recommendations for specific mowers can be found in the operator?s manual, but the general rule of thumb is that riding mowers should be backed down an incline for additional stability. Push mowers should be pushed forward down an incline. Sometimes a mower may be the fastest tool for the job, but it is not the safest option. There are times when the safest option is to avoid mowing. An unfortunate reality is that designers don?t always think about maintenance. They often plant grass in a median or on the sides of grades. And unlike groundcover, grass must be mowed. These areas are not necessarily amenable to mowers. A weed whip, rather than a mower, might be a safer option. Gilbert Pena, brand marketing manager, commercial mowing for John Deere, concludes, ?If an area such as a hillside looks dangerous, it probably is. In their rush to get work done, people tend to overlook this simple warning.? Perhaps the best, and most obvious, suggestion is requiring employees to demonstrate their knowledge of safe mowing practices before giving them a ?license? to operate the equipment. Bird says, ?People take it for granted that anyone can mow. It?s really not true. It?s important that people know what they?re doing before they?re sent to mow.? In addition to licensing workers, it?s not a bad idea to insist on a safety dress code. This includes steel-toed work boots, which can provide added traction in slippery areas, and protect feet and toes if an object is dropped onto them. Safety glasses can protect eyes if 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. The entire company, including workers and owners, can benefit when the company attends to safety. Gachina says, ?It doesn?t matter whether your company has three employees or 300, safety needs to be part of the company culture.? Gachina Landscape Management has created a culture of safety via monthly meetings. During its meetings, the company recognizes crews for safe practices. Recognition can go a long way with employees, but Gachina goes an extra step. When the company goes one month without any safety incidents, it purchases $1,500 worth of goods to be raffled at the monthly meeting. One or two incidents in the course of the month decreases the pot to $500 worth of goodies, available only to employees not involved in any incidents. The upfront cost may seem steep, but attending to safety pays substantial dividends in terms of decreased workers? compensation rates. And the smaller contractor need not shell out for a full-blown raffle. A small award or recognition serves the same purpose. The best safety measures are ongoing. Continual reinforcement of your company?s safety policies and procedures safeguards employees who may slip into bad habits. It also provides a measure of protection for new employees. After all, turnover in this business can be high. The best tactic is to develop a plan for training new hires, and assign one person to be responsible for this task. It?s a win-win situation. You will see a drop in workers? compensation rates, and your employees will be healthier and ultimately, more productive.

February 2004