The statistics are gruesome, if a bit uncertain: Estimates of lawn-mower-related injuries range from 23,000 to a horrendous 75,000 annually, with a significant number of those injuries involving children. Fatalities average a tragic 75 deaths per year. And to compound the tragedy, essentially all mower accidents are preventable.
Common sense dictates most rules of mowing safety. Carelessness plays a leading role in almost all mowing accidents, and the power and speed of today's commercial and residential mowers can make even a moment's distraction dangerous. Safety begins with concentrating on the task at hand, even before turning the key in the ignition.
An easy familiarity with the mower is critical, and the operator's manual should always be required reading for anyone operating the mower, both for the safe use and the proper care of the machine. Commercial and larger residential mowers come laden with helpful decals offering useful information about the daily operation and maintenance of the machine, but these decaled messages are an extension of the owner's manual, not a replacement. Use them for quick reference and frequent reminders. Of special importance among the mower's safety features is the procedure for stopping the mower quickly in case of an emergency. A recent study has suggested that 90 percent of all mowing injuries occur with inexperienced, poorly prepared operators. So it's important that long before the mower leaves the garage, the operator knows the equipment.
WHAT TO WEAR
Safe mowing requires a uniform: pants, steel-toed boots, goggles and ear protection. No bare feet. No sandals. No tennis shoes. No slippery footwear of any kind. No hanging jewelry should be worn. Tie up long hair. Clothing should fit closely: A dangling pair of jeans can be deadly and clothes too scanty give no protection from burns or projectiles traveling at 200 miles per hour (the muzzle velocity on a typical mower's discharge chute). And a Walkman does not count for ear protection. In fact, the distraction of headphones may well prevent an operator from hearing a dangerous situation, while adding decibels to an already noisy environment.
AT FIRST SIGHT
Now properly dressed, there comes a close inspection of the mower. Never, under any circumstances, attempt to operate a damaged or poorly maintained machine. Add fuel, if necessary, before starting when the engine is cool. (On refueling, allow at least 10 minutes for engine cooling, except on mowers where the fuel cap stands well away from hot engine parts.) Always use extra caution during fueling to prevent burns and explosions. Avoid spills and, of course, never, ever smoke around gasoline. Make certain that all shields and safety covers are in place and in good working order. Discharge deflectors must always be in the down position to prevent the launching of debris. All shut-off mechanisms — seat switches, for example — should be fully operational. (Removal of such devices is far too common and, while their elimination might seem to simplify or accelerate the mower's operation, the consequences can be catastrophic.) Check the machine for cleanliness, paying special attention to the deck. Disconnect the spark plug wire before attempting to unclog a chute or perform any sort of maintenance work. And always use a tool for removing clogs, never your hand.
You should then walk the entire lawn to ensure that rocks, sticks, toys, garden hoses and all debris have been removed. Look for holes or deep depressions. No children or pets should be allowed near the mowing area. And if the grass is wet, postpone the mowing.
Always mow alone. Never carry passengers while mowing because a sudden turn or an unexpected movement could throw the rider from the mower. And, by all means, never allow a child to ride on or operate any outdoor power equipment. Keep maximum distance from people and pets at all times, and be especially watchful of the direction of clipping discharge. Observe closely the grass just ahead, looking for concealed debris. If you should strike a foreign object, stop the mower immediately and inspect the machine for damage. Do not attempt high-speed maneuvers, particularly in close quarters or in congested areas. Avoid sudden stops and quick reverses of direction. Do not mow at night.
A WORD ABOUT SLOPES
Slopes are no friends to riding mowers, and mowing on hills requires particular care. Mowers equipped with roll-over protective structures (ROPS) are the safest and should always be used in tandem with a seat belt (except with mowers equipped with a foldable ROP). In the locked and upright position, foldable ROPS demand seat belts, of course, and in the folded-down position, seat belts should never be used (in case of rollover here, the belt would hold the operator to the seat, a disastrous, potentially deadly place to be).
Some mowers are quite capable of traversing horizontally on moderately steep slopes. On steeper hills the mowing pattern should be up and down, rather than parallel to, the hill. Safe mowing on slopes demands an awareness of potential hazards at the bottom of the slope: water, a road or highway, buildings or other structures, rocks or drop-offs.
On all slopes of 15 degrees or more, be especially alert to conditions that might cause the drive tires to lose traction, with a resulting loss of control. Such conditions include wet terrain or depressions in the ground (holes, ruts and washouts). Soil type, such as sand, loose dirt, gravel or clay, can affect traction as can the type, height and density of the grass being cut. Extremely dry grass can reduce traction. Also be aware that attachments, such as a grass collection system, can change the handling characteristics of the mower and, naturally, no operator should attempt slope mowing without full familiarity with both the tractor and any attachments. Should any signs of loss of traction occur, drive off the slope immediately using extreme caution. Determine the cause of the lost traction and resolve the problem before returning to the slope.
These seemingly obvious rules of the mowing road simply cannot be repeated too often. Such examples include:
Never attempt to start the engine when strong gasoline fumes are detectable. Locate and correct the source of the gas leakage.
Never attempt to make adjustments or repairs to the tractor or attachments while the engine is running. (Only trained personnel should perform repairs or maintenance requiring engine power.)
Never work under the machine unless it is securely supported with stands, blocks or a hoist.
Always be aware of potential hot parts of the machine.
Observe all traffic laws when driving the machine from one location to another.
Never run a mower over gravel, stones or hard, immovable objects such a pipes or the edges of sidewalks.
Be aware of your surroundings when backing up your riding mower.
Be careful when mowing around large shrubs or trees with limbs hanging at eye-level, as these can be potentially dangerous for trauma to the eyes and face.
Keep hands and feet away from all moving parts on the machine, especially the blade housing and the discharge chute.
Never leave the mower running and unattended.
Never run the engine in an enclosed area unless the exhaust is vented directly to the outside. Remember, carbon monoxide is odorless and deadly poisonous.
Never operate a mower, or any power equipment, after drinking alcohol or taking drugs, including both prescribed and over-the-counter medications that might cause drowsiness.
THE DANGERS OF HYDRAULICS
Today's mowers are miracles of hydraulic power, but the maintenance and repair of these hydraulic systems require extra caution.
Hydraulic fluid escaping under pressure can penetrate the skin. Fluid can also infect minor cuts or scratches, and any exposure to hydraulic fluid calls for an immediate visit to a doctor.
Before applying pressure to a hydraulic system, ensure that all connections are tight and that all hoses and lines are in good condition. Relieve all pressure in the system before disconnecting or working on hydraulic lines. To find a leak under pressure, use a piece of cardboard or wood, never your hands.
TAKE CARE OUT THERE
The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) reports on its Web site that lawn mower racing has become something of a fad — a dangerous fad, even with mowing decks removed. Racing is just the most recently publicized sort of horseplay that, inevitably, leads to trouble around mowers and other heavy-duty equipment.
I'll say it again: almost all accidents involving outdoor power equipment are completely preventable. Use these wonderful, hard-working, timesaving machines for their intended purposes only. Enjoy the smell of freshly cut grass. Take in some sun. And find satisfaction in a job well and safely done.
John Brown works for Hustler Manufacturing (Hesston, Kan.).
SAFE RIDING MOWER USE
Never carry passengers.
Do not mow in reverse unless absolutely necessary. If you must mow in reverse, stop before shifting, then watch behind you the entire time you are moving.
Never leave an unattended machine running. Always turn off blades, set the parking brake and stop the engine before dismounting.
Stop the engine before removing the grass catcher or unclogging the chute.
Turf off blades and attachments when not mowing.
Watch traffic when crossing or operating near roadways.
Watch for holes, ruts, bumps or other uneven terrain that could overturn the mower.
WALK-BEHIND SAFETY GUIDELINES
Never mow wet grass. You may slip, plus the grass is likely to clog your mower.
Mow across a slope and watch your footing. By mowing across the slope, you will be less likely to slip under the mower. Also, the mower can't roll back on you. Never mow a slope that is too steep to keep your balance or to control the machine.
Don't overreach. Keep the proper footing and balance at all times.
Always push the mower; don't pull it toward your feet.
Keep the mower flat; don't lift the front end over tall grass or weeds.
Turn off mower blades when crossing a sidewalk or drive, especially those composed of gravel, so that you don't spray debris at passersby.
Take care when changing mowing directions to ensure no one has inadvertently moved into your path. Especially watch for children.
Immediately stop and turn off the mower after hitting an object. Inspect the mower and repair any damage before resuming work.
Watch out for children entering the area. Mowing activities can be particularly attractive to children. But children often don't have the common sense to stay at a safe distance.
DID YOU KNOW?
Mowers can hurl small objects as far as 50 feet at more than 200 mph?
At a minimum, power mower blades spin at 3,000 rpm? (That's 50 per second.)
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