The legal aspects of equipment-safety training

Manufacturers of grounds-care equipment offer a variety of turf-care, lawn-maintenance and lawn-beautification products designed to cut things, or at the very least, to grind things up and spit them back out in an altered form. Most accidents that occur during the use of such products are the result of carelessness, inattention, improper maintenance or unsafe operation. Manufacturers know that using this kind of equipment improperly can result in hazards or injuries to the operator. Therefore, they go to great lengths to minimize those risks to their customers.

Often, manufacturers subject every product to a design review for hazards. During this process, they carefully consider and try to anticipate all the foreseeable uses of the product and all the foreseeable modifications to the product. Most importantly, they try to determine all the foreseeable misuses of the product.

Guarding against hazards As a result of this review process, manufacturers can identify the hazards and attempt to eliminate them from the design of the product. For example, one risk associated with a Toro rotary-mower deck is that the blade spinning at almost 200 mph is capable of picking up an object from the ground and throwing it with considerable force. If that object makes it out the discharge opening of the mower deck, it can seriously injure a bystander. In response to that risk, the Toro Co. invented the Guardian Recycler Deck, which has no openings in the sides of the deck through which objects can escape.

In the case that the manufacturer cannot effectively eliminate a hazard from the design, it must guard against the hazard. The lawn-care industry has been unable to find an effective substitute for a whirling metal blade that can still cut grass. The solution, therefore, is to encase the blade in a sturdy housing that reaches almost to the ground. The mowers, as a rule, have safety switches that will shut down the blade if the operator leaves the operating position without first turning everything off.

Hazard warnings When a manufacturer cannot prevent a hazard completely, or sufficiently guard against it, the company must carefully and clearly warn the customer about it. Have you ever noticed that multicolored paper and plastic labels obscure the paint on your turf equipment? The lawn-care industry developed today's warnings carefully in adherence to the current standards for effective warnings. Therefore, industry is convinced the warnings not only help prevent accidents but will hold up in court, should a lawsuit occur due to an accident.

Operator training Some of you may recognize an engineering "hazard hierarchy" forming here. After we have tried to eliminate the hazards from the design, guard against the hazards and warn about the hazards, we still must make an effort to properly train the operator. It is impossible for a manufacturer to do this on its own. At this point, it is up to the person signing out the equipment and the operator to help.

As you can see, the manufacturer has already done a great deal. Now it is your turn to help put the finishing touches on reducing the risks to your operators, as well as reducing the possibility that your operation will be involved in a lawsuit due to an injury to one of your employees.

Remember, if an employee sues the manufacturer due to a personal injury involving a piece of its equipment that you own, it is highly likely that the employee will sue you as well. Even if the employee does not sue, you can expect a visit from your local Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) representative and one or more workers'-compensation investigators. Take precautions to eliminate the possibility of any equipment-related accidents before you find yourself faced with a lawsuit.

* Provide a training program. Set up a formal instruction plan for introducing new employees to the risks involved in using your equipment and how to avoid them. Insist that they study the operator's manual thoroughly. Make a copy of the manual available to the operator of each piece of equipment at all times. If you don't have enough manuals, contact your distributor or the manufacturer directly. Keep a library of video safety manuals and consider buying a video safety-training course. Some of the courses are available in English and Spanish, in video form and in audio-only. Additionally, some courses include a written test for use at the end of the program. You may want to repeat this type of program periodically to refresh your workers' memories, or at least encourage them to look at videos and manuals during their breaks. Keep a record of who has participated in the formal training exercises and when that participation took place.

Have serious discussions with your crew about the potentially life-threatening risks associated with the use of the equipment around slopes, drop-offs, ditches, ravines and water. Make them aware that their approach to such hazards, whether on a ride-on unit or on foot, could be a life or death situation. Put fear in them, then reinforce that fear periodically. These are serious machines not to be taken lightly, and if they go out of control down a hill or into a lake, the operator could suffer a fatal injury.

Instill in your employees a common-sense dress code, which includes a hard hat, safety glasses, hearing protection, long pants and sturdy shoes. Check your local ordinances and your nearest OSHA office. Find out if a locally required personal-protective-equipment standard exists. Check into your insurance requirements. If you encourage your workers to consider what they are wearing before they operate equipment, it will keep them cognizant of the potential risks they may face.

* Know your operators. You should not permit all employees to operate large pieces of equipment that feature whirling blades. Start your employees out on smaller, less-hazardous pieces of equipment. If they show good judgment and common sense in their daily work, gradually move them up to your larger units. Be sure to have your more experienced workers instruct and coach them in safe operation. As a rule, it is a good idea to require a valid driver's license before allowing anyone to take over the operation of a ride-on turf-cutting machine. Observe the employee on your own. Satisfy yourself that he or she has the physical strength and the mental ability to control a large machine and to operate it wisely. Note that some operators have a tendency to do a little more with the big rider than it is capable of doing, especially near drop-offs and ditches, in an effort not to have to come back later with the walk-behind and finish the job on foot. This kind of overreach with the product has proven, in several instances, to be fatal.

* Provide a safe practice area. Allow time and insist that new operators be given the opportunity to practice operating a new machine, somewhere relatively level and away from bystanders. Make sure a knowledgeable operator supervises this practice.

* Buy the right equipment. If you have hills, drop-offs and ravines, make sure you send your workers out on the right equipment with the right safety features, such as ROPS and seat belts. If you have lakes and ponds on your site, find out who among your operators can swim. Providing flotation devices under certain circumstances may be a consideration.

* Ensure proper set-up. Use the manufacturer's delivery checklist and operator's manual as a guide to proper set-up. Use the product only as the manufacturer intended. Do not modify it in any way. Instruct your operators in the proper use and forbid them to attempt to make any other use of the product. When changing accessories ona product, be sure your operators understand and are alert for different handling characteristics.

* Protect your credibility. If an accident does occur with a piece of equipment, set it aside in a safe area and call the manufacturer. If you want to place blame on the product, you first need to remember that you made the decision to purchase it. And, if it is as dangerous as you now say it is, why were you making your employees use it? Think about it.

* Identify and communicate any safety concerns. If you see a potential hazard, let the manufacturer know about it at once. Together, you may be able to prevent an injury.

* Do not alter product designs or use will-fit or non-standard parts. Manufacturers design and test their products to rigorous safety standards. Maintain your equipment to those standards. If you start altering the equipment's features, you could render the product not only unsafe but violate safety standards. If you make changes, you become the manufacturer, and the original manufacturer will not support you in your defense of the lawsuit. The manufacturer will take the position that it built the product right the first time around, and you caused the injury through your alteration. Never defeat or bypass a safety system or guard.

If a mower deck comes in damaged or bent, be sure you fix it before sending it back out. Consider keeping extra deflector shields in your parts inventory so a unit won't be without the added protection from thrown objects that a deflector shield provides.

* Always repair or replace damaged or missing safety devices, guards and warnings. Again, the manufacturer tested the product with all safety devices in place. It meets the standards when it leaves the manufacturer. To protect yourself, your employees and innocent bystanders, make sure your shop keeps it that way.

Safety always comes first As you can see, there is not much to this. The most difficult item in this list is probably the creation of a formal safe-operation training program, and most manufacturers would be willing to help you develop one. You can make a significant impact on your workers by taking the time to train them properly; to reinforce the concept that the hazards involved in these machines are serious, life-threatening business; and to sit down and listen to any safety concerns they may have. It is important to act on any issues your employees bring up so they will continue to voice their concerns. It also is important to record their concerns along with a notation of what measures you took to correct any conditions of concern. Finally, it is important to keep the manufacturer apprised of those concerns at all times.

James J. Seifert is assistant general legal counsel for The Toro Co. (Bloomington, Minn.).

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