Everyday safety: Around the yard

Several years ago, I was inspecting a warehouse on a Monday, and I noticed that one of our workers had a large bandage on his hand. My first thought was, “Oh no, an unreported work injury.” It turns out that he was redoing his floor and cut off the top of his finger using his power mitre saw.

I think people are more safety-conscious at work than at home because there are various rules, procedures, equipment, and people like me there, whose job is to prevent injuries. At home we are on our own, but we still have projects to do.

Let’s take a look at a few yard work jobs and apply some health and safety tips to them. As usual, I ask the question: “What can hurt me or what can hurt someone else?”

The most important machine is you
The first thing to consider is your physical condition. You may be a bit out of shape, so take it easy at first. The first time out, give yourself a limit of an hour or two, and remember that the sun’s UV rays are not your friend. Stretch first and know your lifting limit.

Cutting lawns
Lawnmowers are whirling, foot slashing machines, and every year hundreds of Canadians injure themselves using them. The only injury I’ve ever received from a lawnmower was being hit by a softball-sized rock, thrown by a neighbour’s machine, when I was a kid. It hit my lower leg from about 11 metres away.

It really hurt, but luckily, I just received a bruise. I remember reading a true war story from the 1800s, where a soldier could actually see a cannon ball coming towards him before it hit someone nearby. That was the same for me; I could see the flying rock, but there wasn’t time to move out of the way. Check your lawn and look for rocks before cutting the grass.

Any rotating machinery can hurt you—treat them with respect. It’s amazing how many people are injured by lawnmowers, so consider buying safety shoes. Your friendly neighbourhood hardware store often has them on sale for less than $50. At the very least, old hiking boots with good traction are better than wearing runners for lawn mowing. I know one fellow who cuts a steep lawn wearing golf cleats. He cuts from uphill with the lawnmower down hill of him. He is sure not to slip under the mower blade; it’s a smart idea.

Manual push lawnmowers
Reel lawnmowers are becoming more popular for small lawns and I know why. My dad picked up a used one for me a couple of years ago and it’s a great little human-powered thing, with no need for gas or extension cords.

  • They are much easier to use if you keep the blade sharp.
  • Because they require back and forth action, safety footwear is recommended.
  • Wear work gloves, since there is no guard between you and that sharp blade.

A reel lawn mower is quiet because the blade only rotates when you push it, and as a side benefit, pushing it is a bit of a workout.

Weed wackers
I have a small lawn which is divided into several areas. I can either carry my 14-kg electric lawn mower up and down stone steps to cut each place, or I can use my light-weight weed wacker. It doesn’t do as good a job as the mower, but it’s fast and I’m not that particular (my big garden looks good and makes up for my lack of tidy mowing).

Always wear safety glasses. The spinning fishing line is guaranteed to throw a few rocks if you are using it to edge your driveway, so expect to get hit. The cheap safety glasses have saved my very expensive Nikon prescription lenses.

The other tools
I have a flower garden, not a vegetable garden, so there’s nothing to till. Just remember to respect rotating equipment, especially when it’s a rotating blade. I did once own a power edger, but my weed wacker and spade have replaced it because I like dual-purpose tools.

Speaking of spades, no one thinks of them as hazardous, but their blades are sharp. Interestingly, one of the most efficient weapons of the First World War was the entrenching tool, which is a small spade that every soldier carried. My safety tip for spades is to wear safety footwear and save your toes.

Power edgers are nice quiet machines, which actually makes them, or any machine, more dangerous. People associate noise with danger, so in that sense, loud is good.

Grass blowers are loud. Consider buying and using some cheap ear plugs (and safety glasses) when using this machine. I have good quality ear defenders (muffs) that I use for some jobs, but at other times I prefer disposable ear plugs. They keep me aware of my surroundings while I’m working near the street. There is no point totally blocking the noise, only to then get hit by a passing car.

Cutting and chopping things
I don’t have much grass, but I have lots of trees and shrubs to trim.

One of my favourite tree trimming tools is my small electric chainsaw-on-a-stick, also known as a pole saw. I also have a regular chainsaw, which is handy, but comes with a host of other safety considerations.

I like the pole saw mostly because is separates you from the blade by at least a metre when it’s in the retracted position. Any chainsaw has the potential to kick back, which can seriously hurt you. The small pole saw allows you to hold it with both hands to control kick back and the smaller motor limits the force of any kick back.

  • Wear safety glasses.
  • Before you plug the machine in, ensure the blade is adjusted.
  • Don’t stand under the branch you are trimming (look up tree trimming accidents on YouTube to see why).
  • Wear gloves when handling the saw. The only time I was ever cut by my pole saw was when I nicked a finger by touching a blade tooth while adjusting it for use. Chainsaw blades are razor sharp.

I prefer to use manual tools whenever I can. For trimming branches, I start with a pair of sharp garden shears on small stuff, then I switch to a small hand saw as needed and I use a larger buck saw for thicker branches. Wear sturdy gloves. After removing a branch, resaw it over something solid, but not over your knee.

I avoid using axes and hatchets for yard work since you are applying tremendous energy when using one of these. A glancing blow from an axe can do a lot of damage. Save your axe and wedges for chopping firewood.

Lastly, consider your surroundings (kids, pets, etc.) when doing anything hazardous. I’m sure that my neighbour’s German shepherd will want to help me with the yard work this weekend. Maybe I can teach her to chew the branches that need trimming.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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