Don't throw away profits by letting careless equipment operation cut your season short.
As winter approaches, it is time to start thinking about snow removal. Whether you’re purchasing a new snow thrower or dusting off the old one, it is important to be aware of the dangers of this piece of equipment and to know how to safely operate and maintain it.
Snow Thrower Safety
Any piece of equipment can be dangerous when operated carelessly or incorrectly. Snow throwers in particular are potentially dangerous. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in a recent year there were more than 5,000 hospital emergency room-related injuries associated with snow throwers. CPSC has received reports of 19 deaths since 1992 involving this piece of equipment. Two people died after becoming caught in the machine, and five deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from leaving their snow thrower engine running in an enclosed area.
Injuries most frequently occurred when consumers tried to clear the auger/collector or discharge chute with their hands. A snow thrower’s large, exposed mechanism, which is designed to dig into the snow, is difficult to guard. However, with proper handling, snow throwers offer a safer method of removing snow than the backbreaking, heart-straining manual method, according to the Southwest Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).
The auger at the front of the snow thrower is the greatest hazard. These augers, along with moving gears, drive chains and belts, can endanger anyone tampering with a snow thrower when it is running. Injuries usually occur when the operator attempts to clear debris while the motor is running. Even cleaning the machine with a stick can be extremely dangerous if you leave the motor on. The spinning blades can pull the stick from your hand and toss it back at you with great force if the clutch lever is also held on. Some models have automatic stopping devices that take effect when you release the handle.
According to the Michigan State University Extension, about 80 percent of the blade-contact injuries studied involved machines with running engines; however, some blade-contact injuries associated with snow throwers occurred when the engine was off. This is because blocked auger/collectors and impellers can spring back when cleared and may cause injury, even with the engine stopped. Wet, heavy snow-clogged snow throwers were responsible for 81 percent of the 43 blade-contact accidents investigated. Unclogging a discharge chute appears to be the most hazardous activity associated with the use of snow throwers.
Although snow blowers can handle dry, powdered snow with little difficulty, they handle wet, sticky snow less effectively, the ASSE says. Wet snow can clog the blades and vanes and can jam and stick in the chute. They can also pick up and throw ice, stones and other hard objects.
Walker Manufacturing’s Tim Cromley says to start with the basics when dealing with snow thrower safety: Keep hands away from moving objects. He says quite a few accidents happen when people stick their hands into the machine, so one of the most important rules to remember regarding snow throwers is to never put your hands in the chute for any reason. A snow thrower’s chute can become clogged when the operator is clearing a path, especially when the snow is wet. When this happens, turn off the snow thrower and wait for all moving parts to come to a complete stop. Then, with a stick, clear the chute. Do not use your hands to clear the chute.
Cromley also says that people tend to forget about their clothing when operating snow throwers.
“A sleeve or scarf can get caught rather easily if the PTO isn’t well protected,” he says. Cromley adds that even loosely fitting pants can get caught in the machine if operators aren’t careful.
It is also important to know where you’re operating, according to Cromley. When working in places that you’re not familiar with, you have to be cautious of running over gravel areas or going into yards and picking up newspapers, kids’ toys and rocks. Although newspapers tend to just explode, other items can be more dangerous when thrown by a snow thrower. Cromley says to be careful of where you’re throwing snow because you’re not the only person who can get hurt.
You should mark the area before working with a snow thrower so that you are aware of where you can work. Being familiar with the boundaries of driveways and sidewalks is especially important because it can prevent damaging your equipment as well as the property.
Most snow throwers manufactured since 1975 have an Operator Presence Control (OPC). An OPC causes the snow thrower to stop within five seconds after the operator releases the controls. This is an important safety feature designed to protect users, so it is crucial that you never disable this feature, no matter how often the snow thrower clogs with snow.
The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) recommends knowing these safety tips before starting up a snow thrower:
- Read the owner’s manual thoroughly and understand all of the recommended safety procedures before turning on your snow thrower.
- Never allow children to operate equipment.
- Keep the area of operation clear of all people—particularly children—and pets. Never throw snow toward people or cars, and never allow anyone in front of the snow thrower.
- Snow can sometimes hide objects that might clog the chute or cause damage. Clear the area of doormats, sleds, boards, wires and debris.
- If you have to repair your machine, remove an object or unclog built up snow from the chute, always turn off the snow thrower and wait for all moving parts to come to a complete stop. Disconnect the spark plug wire or, for electric snow throwers, disconnect the cord.
- Keep hands and feet away from all moving parts.
- Dress properly for the job. Be sure to wear adequate winter garments and footwear that will improve footing on slippery surfaces. Wear safety glasses, and avoid any loose-fitting clothing that could get caught in moving parts. Be careful of long hair.
- Handle gas carefully. Avoid spillage by using non-spill containers with spouts. Fill up the tank before you start, while the engine is cold. Store gas in a clean, dry, ventilated area, and never near a pilot light, stove or heat source. Never smoke around gasoline.
- Do not clear snow across the face of slopes. Use extreme caution when changing directions on slopes. Do not attempt to clear steep slopes.
- Never operate the snow thrower without good visibility or light. Always be sure of your footing and keep a firm hold on the handles. Walk—never run.
Following the above steps can help to ensure your safety when operating snow throwers. The Emergency Medical Services of Southeastern Minnesota recommends these snow thrower don’ts:
- Do not make adjustments with the motor running.
- Do not operate the machine unless proper guards, plates or other safety devices are in place and working properly.
- Do not overload the machine by trying to clear the snow too quickly.
- Do not operate the snow thrower without good visibility or light.
Snow Thrower Maintenance
With proper maintenance, a snow thrower will be more efficient. OPEI offers suggestions on how to keep your snow thrower running like new. Beyond reading the maintenance instructions of the owners’ manual, OPEI offers these general tips:
- Check shear bolts and other bolts at frequent intervals for proper tightness.
- Run the machine for a few minutes after each use to prevent freeze-up of auger/impeller.
- Check belts for wear and tightness.
- Fill fuel tank after each operation to force moist air from the tank and to reduce condensation of water into the fuel.
- Keep tires properly inflated and add tire chains to increase traction.
OPEI also says that equipment operators who take the time to store equipment properly keep equipment in safe working order and save the trouble of unexpected and possibly costly repairs. Proper storage extends the life of equipment and keeps engines running efficiently. And with new low-emission engines that run 70 percent cleaner than in previous years, proper storage helps to keep the air cleaner for everyone.
Cromley says lubrication is important to consider in maintaining your snow thrower. You should make sure your equipment is well-lubricated before it snows. “You’re basically working in water,” Cromley says.
He also recommends maintaining chains and sprockets and ensuring the proper alignment of chain to sprocket. You should also keep gearboxes lubricated and check to make sure nuts and bolts are correctly fastened, as they can become loose as a result of the machine’s vibration.
Follow the Rules
Although some of these safety and maintenance guidelines seem obvious, injuries still occur when operators become careless or ignore the rules. When they are operated correctly, snow throwers can be a helpful addition to a snow-removal plan. Following these basic guidelines, properly preparing before working, and using common sense will help to ensure a safe and injury-free snow throwing winter season.
When it is time to store your equipment for the winter, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) recommends that you follow these steps:
- Drain the fuel tank completely by running the engine until all of the excess fuel is gone.
- While the engine is still warm, drain the crankcase oil.
- Fill it with fresh oil.
- Lubricate all lubrication points.
- Check all moving parts for damage. Cover any bare metal parts with oil or rust preventive.
- Clean caked-on grass, and wipe debris from engine, deck and handle of mowers. Clean debris from tillers, edgers and shredder housings.
- For battery-powered equipment, remove battery and fully charge before storing.
- For those who aren’t do-it-yourselfers—you might prefer to take your equipment to a service dealer for a pre-storage tune up. Then, store equipment and any fuel can in a clean, dry, ventilated area and never near a pilot light, stove or heat source of any kind.
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