Hazards during landscaping work

By: Mike Huss, Loss Control Consultant

When you think of landscaping, dangerous working conditions probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. While it’s true that landscapers don’t usually face some of the more deadly construction hazards, e.g., falls from heights, working in trenches, they are still exposed to hazards that can cause serious injuries and lasting health problems. Here’s a brief look at some of those hazards.

Motor vehicles
Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of fatal accidents among landscapers. This includes traffic accidents (frequent travel from job to job means more time on the road) and struck-by incidents. While on the job, all landscaping employees should wear high-visibility colors to increase their chances of being seen.

Common equipment hazards -- recognition, avoidance, prevention. In addition to motor vehicles, landscapers have to avoid cuts, amputations, buried electrical lines and sprains and strains while working with a variety of powered equipment and other sharp tools. The following recommendations can help prevent these types of injuries:

  • Stay aware at all times - workers must focus on both the job and what’s going on around them. Getting distracted around dangerous equipment or getting tunnel vision on the task at hand can be equally dangerous.
  • Keep tools sharp - dull blades require more force to get the job done, increasing risk for repetitive stress injuries, cuts and amputations.
  • Know your equipment - blowers, mowers and other power tools can cause severe injuries if they are used incorrectly. Train employees in the safe use of any equipment they will be expected to use.
  • Learn to recognize the hazards that these machines present. Develop good safety habits to ensure you have no contact with operating machinery. Under no circumstances should you ever reach into any part of an operating machine.
  • Always disengage power, shut off the engine, take the key, and wait for all parts to stop moving before attempting to service or unclog equipment.
  • All guards and shields must be in place and properly maintained.
  • When hitching equipment, the helper should stand clear until the tractor or truck is backed into position.
  • Bystanders should be kept away from areas where they could be struck by thrown objects.

Pinch points
Pinch points are formed when two rotating objects move together and at least one of them moves in a circle. For example, the point at which a belt runs onto a pulley is a pinch point. Belt drives, chain drives and gear drives are other sources of pinch points in power transmission devices. Fingers, hands and feet can be caught directly in pinch points, or they may be drawn into the pinch points by loose clothing. To avoid injury from pinch points, be aware of the areas where pinch points occur, avoid them and make sure they are properly guarded.

Wrap points
Rotating shafts are the most common source of wrap point accidents, although any exposed machine part that rotates can be a wrap point. A cuff, sleeve, or pant leg can catch on a rotating part and result in serious injury. Entanglement with a wrap point can pull you into the machine, or clothing may become so tightly wrapped that you are crushed or suffocated. Check all equipment for potential wrap points, and shield those that can be shielded. Place warnings on those that cannot be covered, or paint them a bright color.

Shear and cutting points
Shear points are created when the edges of two objects are moved close enough together to cut a material, as in the case of shears or an auger. Cutting points are created when a single object moves forcefully or rapidly enough to cut, as in the case of a sickle blade. Both shear and cutting points are created on machinery designed to cut, as in lawn mowers, and on those that are not designed to cut, as in an auger. Some cutting and shearing points cannot be fully guarded, and it is important to be aware of the hazard and to be especially alert when they are operating. It is also important to warn others and to look out for their safety, due to the danger of thrown objects while using cutting-type equipment.

Crush points
Crush points are created when two objects move toward each other or one object moves toward a stationary one, e.g., hitching trailers to vehicles or tractors to implements. Failure to block up equipment safely can result in a fatal crushing injury. A jack may slip, an overhead support may break, or the equipment may roll. Also, the head or chest of an operator may be crushed between the equipment and a low beam, pole or other part of a structure. Usually, these accidents occur when operating the machine in reverse. Tree limbs are also potential hazards when working with tractors and other riding mowers. 

Thrown objects
Almost any object can be lethal if it is propelled with enough force. Rotary mowers and string trimmers are both examples of machines that can cause thrown object injuries. Both machines can hurl stones and other debris endangering other workers and casual bystanders including pets.

Free-wheeling parts
Many machine parts continue to spin after the power is shut off, e.g., rotary mower blades, fans, flywheels, etc. Never touch these parts until they have stopped moving completely.

Pull-in points
Pull-in points usually occur when someone tries to remove plant material or other obstacles that have become stuck in machinery parts. Always shut off the power before attempting to clear plugged equipment.

Stored energy hazards
Hydraulic systems store considerable energy. They can lift and change the position of implement components, operate hydraulic motors and assist in steering and braking. Careless servicing, adjustment or replacement of parts can result in serious injury. High-pressure blasts of hydraulic oil can injure eyes or other body parts by burning or penetrating the tissue due to the liquid being hot. Leaks are a serious hazard. Never inspect hydraulic hoses with your hands because a fine jet of hydraulic fluid can pierce the skin. Follow the instructions in your operator's manual, as specific procedures for servicing the systems are very important to your safety.

On-site electrical hazards
Two major sources of fatality and injury are; coming into contact with overhead power lines or contacting buried cables while digging in soil. These forms of contact can occur when trimming trees, moving metal ladders, trenching, etc.  Before doing any major digging, contact the local utilities and have underground power lines located. Be vigilant when using pole type pruners and other raised equipment that there may be overhead wires. Also, if electrical tools are used, don’t trust the outlets at customer locations. Invest in a portable GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) for added protection.

Vibration from equipment
Landscape workers often spend hours on end driving a lawnmower or tractor performing various functions from cutting lawns to transporting product. It is not uncommon for a machine operator to feel the effects of long hours including; shoulder, neck and back pain, poor circulation in the legs, and potential for the degeneration of spinal discs. Lifting heavy objects after long hours of driving can lead to an increased chance of low back injury. Machine operators should take frequent rest and stretch breaks, and ensure there is a good suspension system and extra padding to absorb vibration from the machine.

Lockout procedures
Lockout/Tagout is a proven system for preventing injuries to workers who are repairing, cleaning out, or setting up machinery. It’s a methodical procedure that ensures someone else won’t accidentally start equipment while repair work is being done. There are many sources of hazardous energy including thermal, chemical, pneumatic, hydraulic, electrical, mechanical, and gravity. Remember all sources of energy have the potential to unexpectedly start-up, energize, or release. Lockout/Tagout programs should be a common part of every safety program with procedures to;

  • Disengage the power and stop the machine before servicing.
  • Not clean, unplug, lubricate, adjust or repair any machine while it is running, unless it is specifically recommended in the service or owner’s manual.
  • Lock-out the ignition and put a warning sign (tag) over the ignition indicating someone is working on the machine.
  • Lockout and tag the energy isolating device with an assigned individual lock, even though someone may have locked the control before you. You will not be protected unless you put your own lock on it.
  • Clearly indicate the identity of the employee who applied the lock out/tag out device. This provides positive identification as to who is servicing the machinery and equipment.
  • Check that energy sources have been disconnected by making certain the equipment will not operate.
Responsibilities
Employers have an obligation under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to ensure that equipment is maintained and in good working order before workers use it. Also, workers have a responsibility to report hazards to their supervisor or employer.
Sources: Farm Safety Association, Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), Occupational Safety & Health Administration
The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as all encompassing, or suitable for all situations, conditions, and environments. Please contact us or your attorney if you have any questions.