Safety Watch: Mower mortalities

July 23, 2019 -  By
safety (Illustration: iStock.com/Vectorios2016)

Illustration: iStock.com/Vectorios2016

It’s time to stop ignoring safety warnings and equipment limitations.

Fatalities of professional mower operators have become all too common. My state (Kentucky) has already seen two fatalities this season. To my knowledge, each one involved riding mowers being operated on an embankment, near a water hazard or near a drop-off. Are each of these deaths the result of operator error, or is there something more pervasive that is contributing to the accidents?

Eight operators died in separate incidents while mowing in Kentucky between 2015 and 2019. Four of the deaths occurred when men were cutting along an embankment and the mowers they were operating rolled over. Two more men drowned in separate incidents when the mowers they were operating flipped over into a pond. Another man fell from a 250-foot cliff after misjudging the edge of the area he was mowing. And a man was killed in a mower accident while mowing a cemetery.

While I have not read the incident investigations for all of these workplace fatalities, they are likely the result of one of three factors: an employee’s willful disregard of safety policies, an employer’s failure to develop and implement a safety policy or leadership’s failure to enforce a safety policy. Sadly, I would argue that it is common throughout our industry for employees and employers to prioritize efficiency over health and safety. To be clear, I do not believe that most employees are insubordinate and that they refuse to comply with safety policies. Instead, when faced with the choice of string trimming a steep embankment or cutting it with a mower, they are more likely to choose the mower. As for employers, I do not believe that they consciously disregard the health and safety of their employees. Instead, I believe they fail to make time to properly assess risk.

What I have seen points to an industrywide disposition toward ignoring equipment manufacturers’ safety warnings and dismissing operational limitations. It’s common throughout our industry to prioritize efficiency over health and safety. Consider this: Every mower operator’s manual I have ever seen instructs operators to wear personal protective equipment, use factory-installed safety features (e.g., seat sensors, debris guards, deck discharge chutes, etc.) and engage the roll over protection system (ROPS) when in use. Yet, these safe practices are routinely ignored.

Take, for example, a mower’s ROPS, which many operators never engage. When asked why, they explain that the mower will not easily cut under low tree limbs or that the mower will not fit into their enclosed trailer or box truck with the ROPS engaged. Using the ROPS creates inefficiencies by increasing string trimming and by wasting time engaging and disengaging the ROPS when you load and unload the mower. Does this sound familiar? This is what prioritizing efficiency over health and safety looks like in our industry.

Reassess your company’s approach toward workplace safety using these questions:

  • Does your company have a safety policy and an active safety program?
  • Do you routinely communicate safety policies?
  • Do you provide safety training for all equipment?
  • Does your company’s safety training adhere to the warnings and guidance provided in the manufacturer’s operator manual?
  • If you operate mowers, do you teach safe slope mowing practices?
  • Do you train employees not to operate a mower on a slope that exceeds the angle limits specified by the mower manufacturer?
  • Are riding mowers equipped with ROPS and seat belts? Do you require their use?
  • Have you identified and communicated known hazards for each job site?
  • Do you train supervisors to look for safety violations and enforce the company’s safety policy?

When you can answer “yes” to the questions above, you’ve done your part to prevent the next riding mower fatality.


Roscoe Klausing, LIC, is the founder & CEO of Klausing Group in Lexington, Ky.

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