I am borrowing a flail hedge cutter from a neighbouring estate and I have never used one before. Is it difficult?

Flail hedge cutters can save a lot of time and effort when maintaining long lengths of hedges but they are serious pieces of kit and should be used with respect. Operators need to be trained in tractor driving and flail hedge cutter use. They also need to read and understand the manual and specifications before use and do a risk assessment covering themselves and others affected by the work.

It is essential that the tractor is at least the minimum weight recommended by the hedge cutter manufacturer or the tractor can topple over when the machine arm is extended. When fitting the hedge cutter to the tractor, or uncoupling after use, be aware of the free-standing unit overbalancing. It should be properly positioned using the stand or props.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions for hitching and unhitching. Check that the machine's fittings and hydraulic couplings are in good condition first. Consider the risks of being trapped between the machine and the tractor, of getting caught on the PTO shaft or in other moving parts such as machine arm, cutting head parts, belts and pulleys, as well as the risks associated with hydraulic hoses.

Wear suitable clothing and non-slip footwear. Make sure that all hedge cutter guards and safety devices are correctly fitted and properly maintained. Route the hydraulic pipes carefully to reduce the risk of high-pressure oil injection. Check that the flails and fixings are those recommended by the manufacturer, none are missing or damaged and all are securely fitted.

Being hit by flying debris is one of the biggest risks when using a flail hedge cutter. There is also a chance of being hit by ejected machine parts or foreign objects in the hedge. The rear and side of the tractor should be fitted with metal mesh or polycarbonate guards of the size and strength specified by the manufacturer. The hedge should be inspected before cutting and any debris removed. Cab windows should be kept shut to protect the operator from noise.

Employ safe tractor-driving practices, remembering to disengage the hedge cutter, stop the tractor and remove the key before dismounting. This applies even if only leaving the seat for a few seconds.

Working speed should take account of conditions, particularly the terrain and any obstacles such as telegraph posts and gateways. Check for overhead power lines (OHPLs) and find out their height as well as the reach of the flail arm. Use safe practices when working near OHPLs.

If working on the road verge, be aware of the risk of road traffic accidents. Use warning signs to alert road users but remember that non-authorised placement of road signs may be deemed an offence under the Highways Act. You should contact your local highways authority to report the time and location of intended work and take its guidance on sign type, size and positioning. Don't forget to collect them afterwards.

Finally, clear debris after cutting to reduce the hazard to walkers, cyclists and other road users. You could use a tractor-mounted blower to propel the cuttings back into the hedge bottom, but you would need to do a risk assessment first.

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