Nick Gramer, the owner and operator of Blue Moon Lawn and Landscape in Muskegon, Michigan, is a stickler for safety. It all stems from a serious accident he witnessed about six years ago.

“We were mowing a commercial park,” he recalls.

“This place always has lots of semis rolling through. One of the drivers wasn’t paying attention, and somehow jacked his 53-foot trailer up on the median where my coworker, Albert, was mowing.”

“Well, the trailer hooked the mower and dragged it, and Albert, a good 60 or 70 yards. He wasn’t killed, but he did break several ribs, as well as his back, in three or four places.”

Gramer says you could see Albert’s handprint all the way down the trailer, where he’d tried to bounce the mower free. When they got the mower back to the shop, the roll bars had been yanked straight up to vertical, and the frame was twisted.

Up to this point, he admits he’d been cavalier about safety. “I was pulling the rollbars off my riders. I figured, ‘I’m not mowing hills out in California,’ so I didn’t think I needed them.”

Ever since witnessing that accident, safety training and safety equipment have become very important to him. “I get a lot of flak from my guys because I make them dress up like county workers. Even if they’re going to be mowing behind a building, shielded from traffic, I want to see them wearing high-visibility fluorescent-orange vests. Not just the mower operators, but everyone on the crew. That’s just one of my many safety requirements.”

At Valencia, California-based Stay Green, a company with about 300 employees and 75 mowing crews, the formal mower safety training program starts at the beginning of every season. It covers basics such as checking the oil and the blades, and making sure the hours on the machines are in harmony with the maintenance program. It also goes over all the safety devices on the mower.

“It’s a year ‘round training program,” says operations manager Steve Seely. “We train all the guys at the beginning of the year, and as we build our teams, we go through the training again, as a refresher.”

When a new employee starts at Mow Richmond, LLC, in Richmond, Virginia, he goes through a half to a full day of learning how to use their main mowers, stand-ons. They’ll spend a couple of hours studying the owner’s manual and learning all the machine’s parts and maintenance requirements.

After that, there’s a demonstration of proper operation and safety, followed by several hours of practical training. “Just before the season starts, we’ll mow some customers, lawns free for training purposes,” said owner and president Erik Stoddard. “We set up orange cones, like a driver’s license test at the DMV. They practice doing figure-eights, going forward, reverse, left and right.”

Obstacles are placed in their paths, to make sure they know how to engage the brake, and to feel the blades shutting off when they step off the mower. They practice dismounting the mower, removing the object, and remounting the mower properly.

When someone is hired at Lake City, Pennsylvania-based Affiliated Grounds Maintenance Group, Inc., an outfit with 3,200 employees, he goes through a formal two-day training program.

“The second day, we get into specifics,” explains Affiliated’s business manager Rich Arlington (who’s also president of his own company, Arlington Lawn Care).

“If you’re mowing staff, you go with a senior foreman and spend a day on his crew. He shows you all the safety features on the mowers, how to back up a truck and fill a mower with gas, and do it safely, among other things.”

One of those ‘other things’ includes where not to put one’s hands. “We’re real specific about that,” Arlington says. “That’s because, as dumb as it sounds, we have to tell people, ‘Do not stick your hands inside the chute area where the blades are moving.’” He says that’s one of the most common accidents in the mowing industry: someone mowing wet grass tries to unclog a chute, but doesn’t shut the blades off, leading to injured and severed fingers—and worse. “I heard a story years ago, where a blade caught someone’s wedding ring and pulled his arm halfway inside the deck.”

According to Arlington, in a proper safety training program, you have to cover the things that sound obvious, because that’s how most of the accidents are going to occur.

“We teach them not to carry a plastic garbage can on the deck of a walk-behind mower. Why? What happens when a plastic garbage can rests against a hot muffler? It catches fire! Yet I’ve observed landscape people all over the country doing just that.”

A-1 Lawn and Landscaping is a small company with forty-five employees in Anchorage, Alaska. Its mower safety training program is more informal, dependent upon manager Ted Pendagast’s assessment of a newbie’s level of experience. “Just watching them load a mower up on the trailer, I can usually tell right away if they can handle the thing or not.” If the new person is inexperienced, then he knows he’ll need to walk a jobsite with him and show him the ropes.

“I run into new hires all the time, who say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been mowing for years!’ Then you show the guy a big commercial zero-turn, and he says, ‘What’s that?’ because he’s only used a little push mower before.”

Making safety training fun

You’d expect a company like Littleton, Coloradobased Terracare Associates, with additional branches in California, Texas, and Utah, to have a formal mower safety training program, and they do, complete with videos. But then, there’s an additional training event that kicks off every season, at every one of the branches. It’s called the “Equipment Safety Rodeo.”

The crew members are divided into groups. As each group moves through the various stations, they learn all the safety procedures for a particular piece of machinery, whether it’s a mower, a skid steer, or a string trimmer, before moving on to the next one.

Each station takes about ten or fifteen minutes to complete. It’s designed to be an educational-but-fun event, although not a competition, and it isn’t timed. There’s a barbecue afterwards.

Participation in the Rodeo is mandatory for all field personnel who will be working with equipment. For current employees, it’s a refresher; for the new people, it’s part of their training. The new personnel work under a foreman who’ll continue to guide them during their first couple of weeks.

The company feels that investing in an expensive one-day training event that, at some branches, involves as many as 150 people, renting the equipment for it, and uniting everyone at the end with a barbecue, gets the message across to employees that safety comes first at Terracare.

This “safety first” message is reinforced throughout the year. Before starting work each morning, crew members do a series of stretching exercises, aimed at reducing injuries.

Each shift begins with a “Safety Minute,” where issues that came up during the previous day are discussed. Every meeting, even those of senior management staff, starts with a Safety Minute.

The other contractors in this story agree that the safety message needs to be repeated over and over again. They all hold weekly tailgate meetings to discuss incidents and go back over training.

“I use real-life stories, like the recent one about the nineteen-year-old who got killed by a wood chipper his first day on the job,” said Gramer. “I use them to make the point that this stuff really does happen.” His talks are backed up by handouts in English and Spanish.

Disciplinary measures

One of the challenges of a seasonal business is that people are always coming in from other companies. Sometimes, they’ve acquired bad habits, like zip-tying down throttles and removing discharge chutes, things they’d gotten away with at the previous job.

“Guys will take discharge chutes off because they don’t want the grass to clump up, so they don’t have to keep stopping and clearing it out,” said Arlington. “But if you do that, you’re allowing rocks and everything else to just fly out the discharge hole and hit cars and pedestrians.”

Arlington serves as an expert witness in personal injury cases involving the snow removal and landscape industry. He says that in almost every instance where a passerby was hit by a mower missile, an investigation reveals that the discharge chute had been taken off the machine.

When Gramer sees a crew member being reckless right in front of him, he has to wonder what that person is doing when he isn’t around. So, he warns his people that “Someone’s always watching.” The crew leader might not have seen you pop that wheelie, but Mrs. Kravitz next door probably did.

Pendagast says that when people have bad habits, you won’t see them right away. “They’ll just go ahead and do it. And the other crew members will tend to conform to whoever the loudest, most brazen guy is.” He says management needs to pay surprise visits to worksites to make sure everyone’s complying with company policies.

It’s not the newbies who do these things, according to Gramer, it’s the veterans. “Who’s easier to work with—the greenhorn, or the guy who’s worked for 12 different companies? The new kid is easier; I’ll be more patient with him. But with some of the old-timers, there can be a lack of respect and a cockiness.”

At Stay Green, if anyone in management, from any division, sees an employee violating company safety policy, he has the authority to take that person off that piece of equipment. He’ll relay a message to that person’s manager, and the incident will get verbal and written documentation.

“Something like that would be considered a ‘close call’ for us,” says Seely. “The event would be described in an email sent out to everyone in the company. That’s not done to embarrass or blast anyone (the employee’s name is left out), but just to make everyone more aware of what can happen.”

While there are disciplinary procedures in place for violations of policy at Terracare, the company prefers positive reinforcement. Management personnel and crew foremen carry “Safety Coupons” that they can hand out when they observe an employee using good practices. The employee can then turn the coupons in for merchandise. It’s a strong incentive to stay safe.

Affiliated has a “zero-tolerance” safety policy. Serious violations result in immediate termination.

There’s no warning, no write-up, you’re just done. Gramer has a similar policy. “When they start ziptying pressure switches, or bypassing operator-presence sensors—if I catch that, they’re gone.”

Arlington tells his people, “Safety features are put on mowers for a reason. None of us out here are smarter than that reason. So leave them alone.”

Slope mowing

Mowing steep grades on zeroturn riders can be a hazardous undertaking. “There’s a common industry belief that riding mowers can do all these hills,” said Pendagast. “But if you read the owner’s manuals, they say, ‘Don’t mow a slope over X-number of degrees.’” He’s correct about that. All manufacturers’ owner’s manuals for zero-turns contain explicit warnings to avoid using the machines on slopes over 15 degrees.

“Some of the extreme slope work, I just choose to avoid,” said Pendagast. If someone else gets that job because they’re willing to accrue more risk, that’s okay with me.”

Some contractors advise their crews to mow slopes in an up-and-down direction on their zero-turns.

But Pendagast says that if a slope is steep enough, you can still flip over.

“You can roll over backwards as easily as you can to the left or right. Rider mowers all have rollover protection systems nowadays, and that helps for back as well as side rollovers, but I still wouldn’t advocate going up and down. Especially up, because ZTRs are designed so that the centrifugal force on the wheels will more likely lift it up and roll it backwards, the more torque you use.”

“ZTRs are heavy. The weight of both the rider and the engine are toward the rear, so as you’re driving up a slope you’re far more likely to lift the front, causing a back rollover.” And a rollbar won’t protect you if it’s been folded down to go under a tree.

Seely says that if his crews encounter steep slopes, they try to avoid them entirely. “We don’t have too many jobs with that issue. When we do, we change to walk-behind mowers.”

Walk-behinds are good alternatives for manicuring extreme slopes. They can also be finished off with string trimmers or push mowers.

Stoddard finds that most slope-mowing accidents happen when operators get too close to the edges of embankments. “Just to save those few extra minutes later on with the string trimmer, they’ll mow closer and closer and closer to the edge. Then they learn the hard way, when they roll down the hill.”

Safety gear and distractions

All of these companies require wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times while working. For mowing crews, these typically include gloves, goggles, hearing protection, leather boots and long-sleeved shirts and pants. None of them allow flip-flops, sandals, tank tops or shorts to be worn on the job. Some, like Gramer, require fluorescent vests as well.

Stay Green recently switched from safety vests to uniform shirts with reflective material, giving the crew members less to wear on hot days. Weekly tailgate meetings include “boot tread checks.” If someone’s boots are too worn out, he’s instructed to buy new ones.

All the safety gear in the world, however, won’t keep a distracted operator from hurting himself or someone else. It probably bears repeating these days, as many people are addicted to their digital devices. It’s a problem for all kinds of employers, not just contractors.

“They can’t stand the idea of just working and concentrating on their work,” says Pendagast. “But if they’re listening to music or something, they’re not going to hear someone screaming, ‘Stop! Don’t do that!’ because their focus is somewhere else.”

Because of the danger, workers are not allowed by any of these companies to use cell phones, iPods or tablets while mowing. Emergency messages are conveyed by crew foremen who do have cell phones.

Safety training resources

If you’d like to improve your mower safety training program, excellent materials are available, many of them for free. All of the major mower manufacturers have instructional and safety videos. The National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP, formerly PLANET) is another great resource.

“It really is beneficial (and required, in most cases) for the contractor to understand and train his employees on all the safety aspects of the jobs they perform and the equipment they use,” said Bill Engler, director of marketing for the Gravely brand at the Brillion, Wisconsin-based Ariens Company.

Safe mowing!