A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Don’t be fooled by harmless-looking lawnmowers — they can be a major safety risk

As the machine age era arrived during the 1900s, safety often became an afterthought as thousands of people were killed or maimed. It took several decades for safety to become a priority and catch up to better protect employees and everyday consumers.

As a safety and risk management professional that grew up in the 1970s, I can vividly remember the safety speech my father would always give me every time he would venture out to mow the grass. Lawnmowers back then were moving amputation machines that did not have disengaged levers or dead-man switches, throw guards, blade-brake clutch system, back flaps, and reverse awareness system. Accidents were just waiting to happen.

At an early age, I watched my father mow the grass just wanting to mow the yard, but my father would always keep me at a safe distance. He had grown up on a farm in Western Kentucky and heard and seen the dangers of farming equipment.

Then one day at the age of 7, while he was at work, I wanted to make some money to buy a vase for a Mother’s Day gift from a nearby garage sale. So I rolled my father’s mower up the street to a little old lady’s house and asked her if I could mow her lawn for $2.

Realizing what a bargain this was, she quickly said yes, but with a raised eyebrow to inquire about my age. Not wanting to lose the opportunity I told her that I was 3-years older than I was, but that I would need some help starting the mower after making up some excuse. After starting the mower, she quickly realized that I obviously didn’t know what I was doing as I went zigzagging all across her lawn in every direction. She fired me right on the spot. She still paid me so that I could go buy that Mother’s Day vase for my mom.

Most people can’t claim to have been fired from a job at the age of 7, but I never gave up hope, and years later like most teenagers, the lawnmower became a viable and profitable source for income. But little did I realize how dangerous those machines really were.

Lawnmowers and riding mowers have changed since my youth. Every walk-behind mower sold in the U.S. since 1982 has a dead man’s switch called an “operator-presence control,” which by law must stop the blades within 3 seconds after the user lets go of the controls. Attached across their handle is a mechanical lever connected by a flexible cable to the kill switch on the engine.

In 2003, in response to the rising toll of accidents and amputations, the mower industry adopted a voluntary standard for riding mowers. It required the blades to stop spinning when the mower moves in reverse, but permits manufacturers to include buttons or switches to override this safety feature. Many manufacturers have done so, and the accidents have continued.

The dead man’s switch can also be located beneath the seat of a vehicle or machine and engages if the operator is not in the seat holding the switch down. On modern tractors, the switch will cut the engine while the transmission is engaged, or the power take-off spinning. On riding lawnmowers, the switch is often more extreme where the switch will cut the engine even if the mower is parked and the blades are not spinning. Seat switches can also be used to keep small children from even starting the vehicle since they would not weigh enough to completely hold down a switch adjusted to an adolescent’s or adult’s weight.

Despite all the new safety features that have been added to lawnmowers since my childhood, today nearly 80,000 people visit the emergency room annually as a result of mowing accidents, and approximately 1,400 require hospitalization. Another 95 people are killed annually, according to an article in Claims Management.

According to statistics compiled by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, more than 17,000 children or teens required medical attention due to lawnmower injuries. According to stats.com, the likelihood of being involved in a lawnmower accident if you are a man is 1 in 2,626, and if you are a woman the likelihood is 1 in 7,248.

The fact of the matter is they are still very dangerous equipment. Most riding mowers blades will turn at speeds between 2,800 to 3,200 rotations per minute. A lot of things come into play here, but mostly the length of the blade. On average the tip speed on the blades on this type of mower will be in the 200-250 mph range.

Most of the lawnmower injuries are occurring to the operator or bystanders being struck by ejected debris, or if someone on a ride-on mower backs up over a child.

Common lawnmower-related injuries are deep cuts; loss of fingers, hands, toes, or feet; broken and dislocated bones; burns; eye injuries; soft tissue damage; and sprains or strains.

Here are some safety tips to remember when mowing:

Teach and supervise teens.
• Children should be at least 12 years old to operate a push mower and at least 16 years old before using a ride-on mower.
• An adult should supervise teens before they can operate a lawnmower on their own.

Kid-free zone.
• Children should never be passengers on ride-on mowers and children younger than 6 years of age should be kept indoors during mowing.
• Never let children play on or near a lawnmower, even when it is not in use

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com

Before you mow.
• Walk your yard and pick up any toys, stones, or other objects in the grass because objects thrown by a lawnmower can cause severe eye and other injuries.
• Put on protective eyewear and hearing protection.
• Wear sturdy shoes and never wear open-toe shoes or sandals.
• Make sure all children and pets are indoors safely before you mow.
• Remember to only refuel the motor when it is turned off and cooled down.
• Ensure that you are in the right state of mind to operate a push mower. Never use a mower if you are fatigued or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

While you mow.
• When using a walk-behind lawnmower, use a mower with a control that stops it from moving forward if the handle is released.
• Always mow going forward. Always try to push the mower forward and avoid pulling it backward unless absolutely necessary, as you are more likely to lose control of the mower this way. If you absolutely have to mow in reverse, always look behind you before you start backing up if using a riding mower.
• Never allow a child to ride on a riding mower with you. In a split second, children can lose their balance and tumble to the ground in the direct path of the mower blades.
• Make sure you and your children stay away from the exhaust. A lawnmower can reach temperatures of up to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Anyone who is near this exhaust could suffer a severe burn.
• Be careful of hills and sharp cornering, accidents can happen when a mower tips over and entrap you or injure you. Never lift the mower off the ground while it’s running.
• Ensure that the mower chute is always facing away from other people, animals, buildings, and nearby traffic.

Turn it off.
• Wait for the blades to stop completely before removing the grass catcher, unclogging the discharge chute, or crossing gravel roads.

Be safe, my friends.

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  1. Brian Walker says:

    I always wear a pair of Big Ear customs, whether it’s my earplugs or my motorcycle earphones, when I mow my lawn. I already learned from experience. LOL. Tinnitus sucks!

  2. Andie Cole says:

    Thanks for the great content. Can’t wait to read more of your works.
    Thanks also the for the safety tips.

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