For many homeowners, lawn mowing is a weekly chore for nine months out of the year. For commercial landscapers, it is of course a daily job and, depending on the geography, a year-round duty. Do-it-yourselfers recognize names such as Toro, John Deere, Honda, and Craftsmen when it comes to lawn mowing equipment. However, many homeowners, and often professionals, do not recognize the extreme dangers associated with this powerful equipment. Studies have shown that even a small riding lawn mower can impart kinetic energy onto projected debris with up to three times the muzzle energy of a .357 Magnum.
Hazards of Mowing
Across the U.S., lawn mower accidents occur on a daily basis. Almost 80,000 people visit the emergency room annually as a result of lawn mowing accidents, and approximately 1,400 require hospitalization. On average, lawn mower accidents cause 95 fatalities annually. These statistics suggest that two out of every 1,000 emergency room visits related to personal injury are the direct result of lawn mower injuries. Lawn mowers can cause bodily injury and property damage, both of which may lead to costly insurance claims.
The most common lawn mower accidents are those of personal injury. These accidents typically result from projected debris that departs the ground and becomes airborne as a result of spinning mower blades. Projected objects can be propelled by the mower blades at speeds of 100 miles per hour or more. Both the lawn mower operator and bystanders become inadvertent targets of flying objects and, therefore, have the potential of being injured by airborne debris. And of course, spinning mower blades can also cause direct physical damage when a person comes into contact with this part of the machine. Fingers and toes are easily severed by the sharp spinning blades of a mower. Feet and hands, followed by legs and arms, can either be completely severed or shredded to a point where amputation is required.
Apart from the damage inflicted by rotating blades, many other hazards are associated with lawn mowing equipment. Physical contact between any non-bladed part of the mower and an operator can also lead to personal injury. Common damages include toe injuries from mowers that crush the feet of the operator and bodily injuries that result from a riding mower that rolls over.
Other examples include burns from touching hot parts and back pain associated with lifting and directing a push mower. Moreover, carbon monoxide vapors produced by gas and diesel-powered mower engines are toxic. Exhaust accumulation in confined spaces, such as a closed garage or shed, poses a threat to the safety of the operator. For this reason, lawn mowers should only be started outdoors, in an open-air environment.
Equipment failure of lawn mowers contributes to property damage in addition to personal body damage. Fires can ignite due to fuel leaks or shorted electrical wiring, similar to automobile fires, which could potentially burn people and/or objects that are in close proximity to the mower. Additionally, the accumulation of dried leaves and grass around a heated engine increases the threat of fire. These hazards increase the potential scope of insurance claims.
In addition to electrical faults with lawn mowers, mechanical failures represent another liability. Hydraulic failure of a mower deck on a riding lawn mower could accidentally crush an operator or damage property. Mower decks can weigh hundreds of pounds and should always be parked securely on the ground to mitigate the potential for injury. Brake or engine failure could cause a mower to lose control while on a hillside. Even though the possibilities for mechanical failure are endless, these types of accidents are far less common than those that result from operator errors.
Common Operator Errors
Effective machine operation requires knowledge of mower behavior in potentially hazardous circumstances. For example, operators must understand the instability of mowers on steep-sloped hillsides, for which up-and-down mowing (mowing parallel to the fall-line of the slope) is encouraged rather than side-to-side mowing (mowing at a 90-degree angle, perpendicular to the slope). Lawn mowing skills are attained with experience in operating the equipment. Operators become more comfortable mowing over time and should never surpass their level of comfort when mowing a “tricky spot.”
Environmental factors pertaining to a region being mowed often lead to accidents. Mowers are prone to rolling off retaining walls or falling down into ditches if operators venture too close to steep declines. Wet grass can lead to excessive slippage of mower tires for riding mowers and slippage of operators for push mowers. Operators should never allow passengers to ride on the back of riding lawn mowers as this poses a serious fall hazard. Proper training on equipment functions and an understanding of the operating manual proves very beneficial in limiting injuries. Properly preparing the lawn area for mowing, including clearing all debris (e.g., sticks, stones, tennis balls, etc.) is essential. Proper preparation also includes clearing the general area of all bystanders who could be in the path of flying objects.
Lawn mower operators often neglect safety warnings and regulations designed to prevent injury. Most lawn care equipment manufacturers recommend the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). This includes wearing gloves to reduce small cuts and abrasions to the hands, the use of protective eye goggles, and the use of either earplugs or earmuffs to prevent hearing loss. Investigations into operator mower injuries often reveal a lack of PPE at the time of the incident.
Mower manufacturers strategically place warning signs on the mower to limit injury. These warning signs are meant to ensure that certain forms of protection remain in place. This includes the guards on mowers that limit the amount of debris sprayed, guards that shield moving belts and pulleys, recommended PPE, recommended lawn preparation techniques, recommended safe-mowing techniques, and rollover protection (aka “roll cage”).
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates rollover protective structures (ROPS) on various types of tractors. Additional OSHA specifications require seat belts on some tractors. Certain lawn mowers are categorized under these OSHA regulations as tractors. OSHA addresses landscaping and horticulture hazards in specific industry standards. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) teamed up to produce a voluntary safety standard, titled ANSI B71.1-1999, pertaining to both walk-behind mowers and ride-on machine mowers. Though generally not mandated, observance of safety recommendations and safety devices tends to prevent injuries.
Case Study in Injuries
A recent investigation of a fatal lawn mower accident involved a tractor towing a pull-behind mower designed for open-space areas. The operator started the engine while standing beside the tractor and was run over.
The tractor was equipped with several standard safety features. Namely, the tractor had a seat contact switch (“dead man’s switch”), which was located between the seat suspension and the seat frame. This switch prevents engine startup/running when the seat is unoccupied. Additionally, the tractor was equipped with both a clutch safety switch and a neutral safety switch, which requires the clutch to be disengaged and the transmission to be in the neutral position for the engine to start.
Examination of the tractor after the accident revealed that all three of these safety devices had been electrically bypassed, or “shorted,” at some time prior to the incident. This was the result of a “jumper” wire installed across the two wires associated with each switch. A jumper tricks the tractor into thinking that the seat is occupied, the transmission is in neutral, and the clutch is depressed when, in fact, those things may not be true. These conditions prevented the safety devices from functioning properly, allowing the tractor to start and continue running while unattended. Witnesses familiar with the operator indicated that he routinely started the tractor as he stood beside it, placing him squarely in front of the large, left-rear tire. While it was unclear who had performed the modification, the tractor was able to start while the operator stood beside it, and apparently the operator was aware of this fact.
On the morning of the accident, the operator started the tractor in his usual fashion but neglected to ensure that the transmission had been placed in the neutral position. The tractor started and lurched forward, and the operator was consequentially crushed as the left rear wheel drove over him followed by the pull-behind mower. The mower deck trapped and dragged the operator as the tractor continued to move forward unattended through the parking lot before impacting a parked vehicle. Coworkers found him unconscious and fatally injured.
Potential Exposures and Claims
In this case, the workers’ compensation carrier explored subrogation against the tractor manufacturer. Had the fatality been caused by a manufacturer defect, the insurance company would have pursued subrogation against the tractor manufacturer for the amount of the claim to recover their losses. However, since the deactivation of the safety features altered the original equipment, the tractor manufacturer was not pursued.
Separate from insurance claims for personal injury or property damage, two distinct insurance claims commonly occur. The first claim is a result of theft. Studies have shown that three out of four property claims from landscapers are a result of theft. Any equipment can be targeted by thieves, from hand tools to weed whips to lawn mowers.
The second type of claim results from damage to personal property that is not owned by the mower operator or their employer. Mowers that bump into cars, buildings, or signs create damages for which the employee, employer, and their respective insurance companies are potentially liable. The scope of the lawn service employment paired with the specific policy of the interested insurance companies will define exactly who holds liability.
Injuries stemming from lawn mower incidences are often described as “freak accidents.” From flying debris to equipment rolling off retaining walls, mower accidents can seem surreal. Mower victims often think that their personal injury case might be one in a million, but the reality is that lawn mower accidents are quite common and are very serious in nature. Insurance claims range from those of property loss or damage to those of worker’s compensation for injury. Working within the $15 billion landscaping industry, it is not only imperative to exercise operator caution but also to define various liabilities within a given insurance policy.
Tyler Schwein is with Pie Consulting & Engineering and specializes in failure analysis and laboratory testing as they pertain to mechanical engineering and claims investigations. He has been a CLM Fellow since 2012 and can be reached at (866) 552-5246, firstname.lastname@example.org.