Steep slope safety solutions

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Photo: Cub Cadet
SLIPPERY SLOPE It’s crucial mower operators be aware of all potential hazards. Photo: Cub Cadet
<b>SAFE STEERING</b>Four-wheel steering helps turn the machine in any direction. Photo: Cub Cadet
SAFE STEERING Four-wheel steering helps turn the machine in any direction. (Photo: Cub Cadet)

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been 387 serious injuries involving commercial mowing equipment, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration pages of the U.S. Department of Labor website. These accidents include amputations, crush injuries, fractures, drowning and electrocution.

Mowing steep banks and slopes — a labor-intensive task that’s not particularly pleasant for crews — is to blame for many of those serious accidents.

Falls, cuts, bruises and broken bones also can occur due to the working conditions on uneven surfaces. Mower experts provide insight on how to create a safer environment and keep operators out of harm’s way.

Operator precautions

Environmental conditions — such as rain, heavy dew or even a new groundhog hole — present common risk factors for mowing accidents, according to Aaron Graber, product development coordinator for Ventrac.

“The big problem is when operators are familiar with a site and something changes with the environment … their brain is turned off to that new hazard,” Graber says. “Usually when operators are on a brand-new site, they’re fine because they’re more cautious. It’s when they get comfortable that they can run into trouble.”

Operators should also make sure the mower’s safety features — such as the rollover protection system (ROPS) — are deployed when applicable. Sometimes, Graber says, operators will put down the ROPS to accommodate tree limbs and then forget to put it back up.

Reading manufacturer instructions, thoroughly training operators, paying attention to what direction the operator should be mowing, checking conditions ahead of time and assessing the potential dangers at the bottom of a hill are all ways to reduce those risk factors, according to Josh Sooy, business segment director for professional products at Cub Cadet.

“We know that slopes need to be mowed, but there’s a lot of people out there who’re mowing in dangerous situations that a mower isn’t rated for … with safety being of the utmost importance, it’s something operators need to make sure they’re doing the right way and make sure they can handle the slope they’re on,” Sooy says.

Implementing a slope gauge on the mower can help alert operators if they begin to approach an area that’s too steep for the rating on their mower.

Mower solutions

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SLIPPERY SLOPE It’s crucial mower operators be aware of all potential hazards. (Photo: Cub Cadet)

The methods of maintaining slopes have typically included zero-turn mowers, compact tractors with attachments, brush cutters, weed-whackers or tractor-mounted side-arm flails.

However, new advances in slope-designated mowers can help reduce the dangers that come with maintaining slopes using traditional methods.

For example, remote-controlled slope mowers, such as the Dvorak Spider machine, allow the operator to control the machine from a safe distance and in comfort, eliminate the man-hours involved in using a brush cutter afterward, reduce noise and eliminate vibrations since the operator is not in physical contact with the machine.

The controller can be used to remotely start and stop the engine; set the desired speed; engage and disengage the mowing blades; adjust the cutting height; change direction and speed; activate the auxiliary winch; and shut down the machine in an emergency. The machine’s four-wheel steering allows the mower to turn in all directions.

Several ride-on mowers also include four-wheel steering, such as Cub Cadet’s slope-designated mower.

While standard commercial zero-turns are steered using the back wheels, four-wheel steering offers the operator control of the front wheels as well.

“It’ll steer the mower up or along a hill a lot more effectively than just using the rear,” Sooy says. “(The operator) can actually make turns uphill when you’re on a slope … when you make a turn, the front steering is synchronized to the back, so if the operator wants to make a tight turn, (he/she’s) not going to turf the slope.”

Dual wheels — a standard on Ventrac’s slope machine — are another option to provide the operator more stability when mowing on hillsides.

“The dual wheels give the machine a wider footprint, and the wider you are, the more stable it’s going to be,” Graber says. “Also having more tires and more tread on the ground gives you better traction and control.”

Other features that can provide stability include an articulating frame, which keeps consistent ground pressure on all four corners of the machine at all times; a lower center of gravity to help keep the machine upright; and a weight transfer system that allows the operator to pull ground force away from an attachment and back to the main machine, according to Graber.

No matter the machine, it’s important to always be aware of a mower’s capabilities and limitations.

“At the end of the day, operators have to be trained and aware of the equipment they’re on and know what those limits are,” Graber says. “People get into trouble when they’re pushing the machines past what they’re capable of.”

Avatar photo

Stephen Tews

Tews is the general manager at Slope Care, an Orlando, Fla.-based distributor of Spider mowers.

Sarah Webb

Sarah Webb

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's former managing editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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