Turf: Handling hazards

Grounds managers need to be aware of health and safety issues, particularly where mowing on slopes is concerned

Safe mowing. Image: iStock
Safe mowing. Image: iStock

It may not look it, but mowing is one of the most dangerous jobs in grounds care. There have been three mower-related fatalities since 2001, while the regional press reports regularly on workers sustaining injuries while mowing.

Last year a 35-year-old man died after his ride-on mower toppled into a ditch in a village in the East Riding of Yorkshire, while a gardener on an Oxfordshire estate lost a leg after being thrown from a ride-on mower.

And already this month a council worker in Derbyshire suffered serious injuries when his ride-on mower slid down an embankment and toppled over a wall onto a road.

Many such incidents arise from mowing on slopes — a particular concern in the golf industry as well for amenity managers.

As if the injuries were not bad enough, unsafe mowing is just one of the workplace malpractices that could leave managers, all the way up to director level, facing prison terms.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is considering forming a national committee to raise safety standards in mower use (HW, 12 June). Consultant for the Institute of Groundsmanship Bill Blackborow has been urging the HSE for some time to tighten the law on mower use. He says safe mowing is something managers are having to consider at all stages. "When you are working on a new site, the use of slopes should be considered at the design stage," he says.

"Often, contractors find themselves with excess soil and so create a slope without considering how it will be managed."

Yet under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, which came into force in 2007, managers have a duty to take such factors into consideration, he adds.

When it comes to maintaining sites, he says: "People have got away with mowing in the same way for years without being aware of their potential liability."

Conventional ride-on mowers are convenient and easy to operate, he says, but they are simply not designed to be used on slopes above 15 degs to 18 degs.

"If you have a lot of sloping ground to look after, like on a motorway banking, then there are specialist machines like the Aebi Combicut that are ideal, but are quite expensive," he says. "For a small, local contractor it's probably not worth it."

Managers should consider whether continuing to mow existing slopes is the best policy, he advises. "There are, of course, other ways of maintaining sites. Thames Water, for example, has given over the banks of its reservoirs to grazing livestock."

He points to a court case last year, which showed the consequences for employers who fail to make adequate safety provision for operatives. The City of York Council was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay a similar amount in costs, following the death in 2005 of a council worker whose ride-on mower had slipped down a slope and overturned.

The court found that the conventional sit-on mower was unsuitable for the 25 degs angle of the slope. A consultant hired by the council had not advised the fitting of a roll bar, and neither was it fitted with a seatbelt.

A slope of 25 degs might not look that steep, says Blackborow. "However, if the surface is smooth and the grass is wet, as it was in this case, it can be lethal."

The damage to employers' reputations can be at least as significant as the fines imposed by the courts, he says, adding that most local authorities are now well aware of their responsibility to operatives. "But some smaller organisations like golf clubs and cricket clubs are probably less aware."

British & International Golf Greenkeepers' Association (BIGGA) representative Scott MacCallum says: "Anything that protects the well-being of golf course workers we're all in favour of. But most course managers are aware of the health and safety elements in their workplace, which is a huge element of any responsible manager's role, both indoors and out. They have to be on the ball, because the HSE is, rightly, stringent."

BIGGA and the Golf Club Managers' Association (GCMA) collaborated on a Ransomes Jacobsen-sponsored Health & Safety Management System three years ago, which is now available to members through either organisation's website.

"You can't eliminate accidents, but you can minimise them, and we have tried to raise the standard," says MacCallum.

"Health and safety can be a minefield, and this helps managers steer a course through it."

Ransomes Jacobsen has introduced a remote-controlled mower, the Ransomes Spider and Spider II, which can cope with slopes of up to 40 degs without putting the operator in danger.

Other manufacturers are also playing their part to improve safety levels. Etesia, for example, offers free instruction on its machines for contractors' teams of six or more.

Obviously, a well-maintained machine is a safe machine. But machinery maintenance brings its own hazards, according to an HSE representative.

"Activities such as clearing blockages and sharpening the cutting blades are common causes of cuts, amputations and facial injuries," he says. "During maintenance, make sure the machine is adequately supported and will not roll or fall on to the person doing the maintenance."

And as the data in the box below shows, over a third of all reportable mower-related injuries are of the musculoskeletal type, mainly caused by "whole-body vibration" — a recurring hazard to operatives, although new technical developments are helping to reduce this.

Add to that the potential damage to hearing from engine noise, and it is clear that mowing is one area of grounds care where particular vigilance will always be required.

Ten ways to safer mowing

  • Familiarise yourself will all safety features and recommendations of each machine, including the maximum safe gradient it can be used on.
  • Ensure roll bars and safety guards are fitted correctly and the machine is properly serviced.
  • Conduct a full risk assessment of grounds you currently mow and measure the gradients. This should also be standard practice when taking on a new site. "It's not mandatory, but it is good practice," says Blackborow.
  • Do not assume you can assess a gradient competently by eye - always use a spirit level or electronic gradient indicator.
  • Before you start mowing, check over each site for bottles, stones and other objects that could be flung at high speed from the blades, and keep the public well clear, with signage if necessary.
  • Wear protective clothing such as steel-toe-capped boots, helmet and ear defenders, and use the seatbelt if there is one.
  • Mow across the gradient, not up and down, and do not pull a pedestrian mower towards you while the blades are running.
  • Always turn the engine off and isolate the spark plug before undertaking any maintenance, even if just to unblock the ejection chute.
  • If you have large areas of sloping ground to manage, consider investing in specialist kit that will cope with it. Weigh up the cost against the possible consequences of falling foul of regulations.
  • Consider whether regular mowing is really the best way to maintain the area. Could it be given over to wildflowers instead?


In force since April last year, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 enables companies and other organisations to be prosecuted for fatalities where a failure to ensure workplace safety can be shown. There is already provision in law for individuals to be prosecuted where gross negli-gence can be shown.

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) require employers to report deaths and major injuries at their workplace to the HSE. Failure to notify is a criminal offence, carrying an unlimited fine.

Under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations which came into force in 2007, site designers must "eliminate hazards and reduce risks during design" and "provide information about remaining risks", according to the HSE.

This is not a statement of the law. Consult the HSE Infoline on 0845 345 0055 for more information.

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