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Say no to ZTR mower mishaps

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Training needs to address the fact that many zero-turn operators are foreign born.

They’re speedy, low to the ground and can turn on a dime. Zero-turn radius mowers (ZTRs) have improved productivity for landscapers, grounds maintenance and commercial lawn care crews. But they also bring with them a stepped-up need for safety training.

“Water, retaining wall drop-offs and slopes may expose walk-behind units to substantial damage, but present little risk of injury to an operator,” says Bob Bogel, risk manager at Cagwin & Dorward in Novato, Calif. “However, the same hazards mishandled while riding a ZTR with its high center of gravity offer a strong possibility of rollover and serious personal injury.”

Bogel, whose company’s landscape maintenance crews operate approximately 20 ZTRs throughout the San Francisco Bay area, adds: “The speed and abrupt turning ability that make ZTRs so productive is a double-edged sword in terms of safety. This is particularly true on slopes. Any slope exceeding 15 degrees should be maintained with a walk-behind. Given the sharp turning radius and shorter time to react, operators must be alert to their surroundings to avoid the elevated risk of property damage.”

Sam Steel, director of projects and grants for the National Safety Council in Itasca, Ill, says that ZTRs “require well-trained operators who are aware of the sensitivity of the control levers and the importance of staying away from such potential hazards as slopes, wet mowing conditions and obstacles that could compound or increase the level of risk, such as trees, plant beds, ponds or water retention areas, retaining walls and curbs.”

Many of the ZTR-related injuries that occur, Steel says, are the result of excessive speed. “The operators are being pushed to complete the jobs in a very tight time frame. As a result of that, they’re taking risks that get them into trouble,” he says.

Brave or smart?

Just picture yourself operating one of these mowing wonders. It’s your first opportunity to use this machine that’s highly maneuverable, exceptionally fast (at least for a mower) and allows you to get the job done quickly—something you’re certain your supervisor will appreciate. Why wouldn’t you clip along at a high speed and think about your plans for the evening rather than the risks at hand?

That’s exactly what often does happen, and unfortunately it can result in serious injuries or even death.

David Kennedy, account manager at GroundMasters’ Kentucky branch, says speeding is the biggest zero-turn hazard he sees. This includes speeding “both in parking lots during transport and on the turf.”

Sudden stops while going backward is also a problem. “Men being more brave than smart,” he adds.

At The Bruce Co. in Middleton, Wis., Operations Manager Bob Schroeder says the biggest ZTR-related hazard he sees is “running into things. Operators think they can get into certain areas but they can’t.” Schroeder, whose landscape contracting company has about two dozen of these units in use in Middleton, Milwaukee and Racine, Wis., adds that “getting them to stop” is also a major problem. “On steep slopes, they may lose traction, then it (the mower) won’t stop until it gets to the bottom – whatever that bottom may be,” he says.

Landscape company managers and operators should be aware of several other hazards when using these speedy mowers. Here are a few examples:

  • “Operating without seat belts and roll bars,” says Jason Hall, account manager at GroundMasters’ Tri-County branch, in Cincinnati.
  • Jamie Jamison, Brandywine Nurseries, Wilmington, Del.: “Safety issues we find are keeping the safety and operator’s presence switches in operation, parking brakes, guards and shields.”
  • Mike Graves, account manager, GroundMasters’ Dayton (Ohio) branch, says the biggest hazard he has observed is “the blade flap (that blocks the deflector chute) being able to be pulled up or down from the sitting position.”

Train, train, train

Everyone Landscape Management interviewed on ZTR mower safety says that continuously training operators in the safe use of these mowers is the key to preventing injuries. That training, says Steel, needs to address the fact that many ZTR operators are foreign born.

“In addition to language barriers, these workers are operating modern equipment that is not typical of the equipment found in their native country. Also, most of these workers are lacking in even the most basic safety training. As a result, they face the risk of serious injury and even death,” Steel says.

At Cagwin & Dorward, where some ZTR operators speak English and others speak Spanish, training on ZTR operation begins when landscape maintenance workers “reach their third and final tier on their path to become crew leaders,” Bogel says. “They view and discuss a safety video presented in English or Spanish, provided by the manufacturer. Cagwin & Dorward has also created a training manual with color pictures of ZTRs at work, instructional text and excerpts from our company safety program, a broader training aid.

“Hands-on training begins at our facility with a mechanic who covers daily maintenance requirements, controls and operation and tips on basic mechanical problems likely to be encountered in the field,” Bogel continues. “A crew leader or production specialist performs field training on site, where specific hazards and methods can be addressed. Bilingual mechanics and field trainers are available so that all ZTR orientation and training is in the operator’s primary language.”

At The Bruce Co., “extensive training per person” is provided with the help of bilingual trainers, Schroeder says. “We do training during spring orientation, plus in the shop, plus out on the job,” he says. “There’s always a two-man crew—usually a crew leader and an assistant. They don’t go out on the job until we feel they are ready.”

“Train, train, train,” GroundMasters’ Graves strongly suggests. Among the topics covered during ZTR training at his company’s branch are blades engaging, blade changing, oil levels, proper fueling, speed, turning and backing up. Hispanic operators participate in a training day “with the company’s own Hispanic trainer and a bilingual employee of the manufacturer, who also comes in with a videotape,” he says.

Kennedy’s GroundMasters’ branch provides “on site, hands-on training,” he says. “Mostly on what it (the mower) will hold and what it won’t, proper turning to not damage property, loading and unloading from a trailer, awareness of all of the safety switches, and the proper way to turn on a hillside.” Spanish-speaking ZTR operators are trained by Hispanic trainers once a week, and the manufacturer comes in once a year to train all of the branch’s zero- turn operators, he says.

LM Staff

LM Staff

Landscape Management's staff brings together collective experience in journalism, research, writing, and editing. Our team stays tapped into the pulse of the industry, covering a wide range topics with a commitment to delivering compelling stories and high-quality content.

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