Fatalities recorded in recent years, notably in Yorkshire and Birmingham, resulting from accidents with ride-on mowers, make health and safety an increasingly important issue - both for manufacturers, in maintaining their operational standards and guidance, and for end users to be correctly schooled in the right ways to handle and look after ride-on and hand-held machinery.
A drive is underway to raise awareness amongst groundscare professionals and machinery purchasers of the dangers posed by machine vibration and noise levels, factors that can lead to ailments such as repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel syndrome and tinnitus.
Industry specialists are keen to promote the best ways to train staff, set up in-house machine testing and demonstrate how best to avoid potential injury from prolonged machine use.
Ian Sumpter, Lely UK's training manager, is one man who strongly believes in the importance of having a well-trained and knowledgeable work force, and of the need for training to remain fresh and relevant for today's operators.
"We run a full maintenance programme throughout the year, changing the content of the programme every two years, as the certificate we offer is valid for only two years. This is also undertaken because we want to make sure the training we are giving is up to date and we are not merely regurgitating the same stuff year on year, says Ian."
Demand for operator training has increased "quite a bit" this year, he reports. "It is usually the time of year when I spend most of the time in the office but, so far, that has not been the case. Companies seem to be keen to ensure their employees have the correct training and know the right ways to use their machinery."
The industry tends to go through waves of activity, he notes. "The fatality in Birmingham a few years back led to a flourish of businesses wanting their staff correctly trained up. Although it really shouldn't be the case that an accident needs to occur before people decide to get the proper training for their staff."
Some view much of health and safety policy as commonsense practice, both by those that enforce it and those that carry it out - a belief that it is based on the safety practices we would enforce on ourselves regardless.
Ian though doesn't subscribe to this belief. "One usually finds a distinct absence of basic commonsense when an accident occurs, so there's little point in saying health and safety is all based on a commonsense approach," he argues.
"I find that, in most cases, accidents occur most frequently in either the young and inexperienced age group or the older worker who has become complacent with the job. Therefore, it is vital not only to train the new operators but also to ensure the older workers are up to speed with the correct ways to operate machines and, crucially, don't become jaded with their work to the point where accidents might occur."
This issue ties in to one of the most risk-conscious areas of grasscare safety - mowing on banks: the cause of death in one of the most documented fatalities in the industry in recent years.
"This is the most potentially dangerous area in the industry and one that hasn't really got a foolproof solution," declares Ian. "The machine that we offer, the Toro Sidewinder, can mow at 25 degree angles on banks and distributes the weight of the machine up the hill as opposed to down - the safer option."
This machine, as well as the Ransomes Spider remotely controlled mower are, arguably, the two that probably do the best job and are the most safety-aware machines, Ian adds. "Still though, there is risk attached and it is really about management rather than delivering a solution. For example using a growth retardant on grass banks means fewer cuts are needed - one approach to the problem," he says.
It is with such issues in mind that councils across the UK are increasingly specifying the Sidewinder and Spider because of their ability to confront the practical problems involved with hill cutting.
Leeds City Council is one local authority that has seen the benefits of remotely controlled machinery in difficult areas, on banking for example, where traditionally equipment such as ride-on machinery and strimmers, were used, raising the risk of repetitive strain and vibrational injuries to operators.
In Britain, Leeds was one of the first to switch to so-called robotic equipment for handling hard-to-access grass on highway verges, in parks and sports sites, purchasing a fleet of five Spider rough turf mowers over three years ago.
Chris Simpson, operations services manager for the council's parks and countryside services, led the team that introduced it into the maintenance programme after seeing a demonstration at a trade show in 2004. "I could see that the machine's versatility might have a place in our own work environment, but, as it was a unique design, I needed more information before I would commit to a purchase," he recalls.
"I contacted one of our hire suppliers who agreed to buy the machine and hire it to the council for six months so that I could evaluate it in real working time conditions. We decided to bring in five machines in 2005 as a result, and now we use them in a number of parks and open spaces throughout the city," he adds.
Chris is confident that Leeds has in place a safety policy to guard against the worst-case scenario. "All our sites are mapped and have site-specific risk assessments," he notes. "All inclines on sites are measured with an inclinometer to test the gradient and, from this, a detailed machine list is drawn up."
Paul Woodham, Course Manager at Gay Hill Golf Club, South Birmingham, and training and education coordinator for the Midlands section of BIGGA, is one who has long believed in the need to address the potential health risks that machinery vibration poses to the user.
"The main concerns with ride-on and hand-held machines are the issues of hand-arm vibration and whole body vibration (WBV), although the effects that ride-on mowers have with regard to WBV is pretty minimal," he says.
"Hand-held machines such as strimmers, chainsaws and brush cutters are the ones that pose the most concern to the user," he continues. "The best ways to help combat these problems is a combination of good job rotation practice, a thorough and well-planned risk assessment of the equipment and a well trained and educated staff. It is imperative that the staff understand the equipment they are using."
The best plan of action for clubs, Paul maintains, is to look at the manufacture data supplied, employ a system of trials with various machines and offer good operator training.
One concern frequently voiced with machine safety is the availability and provision of good safety equipment that guards against damage to the operator from prolonged machine use. But as Paul states: "There is really nothing on offer, product-wise, that can beat good staff training."
As far as protective equipment is concerned what's on the market "largely either doesn't work or actually exacerbates the problem", he states.
"For WBV, there is no protection currently available and, for hand-arm vibration, some hand protectors are on the market but these are, for the most part, just heavily padded gloves that the user often finds cumbersome and will sometimes result in them having to squeeze harder, causing the vibrations to have a greater adverse affect."
"The long and the short of it is - there just isn't really any evidence to suggest that so-called 'anti-vibration' equipment actually works, so I wouldn't recommend that anyone employs them solely as a means of safety protection for their staff."
One of the problems in building up a good health and safety programme is that "unfortunately there is a big gap between manufacturer data and the real working data", Paul continues.
"The machines are often not tested under the rigorous work conditions that they will be used for. There are too many different variables for any manufacturer to test them all. For example, a variety of chainsaws could be used to cut many different materials, all producing a different level of vibration, so it is difficult to gain an accurate picture of the level of vibration without testing the machines first - the only real way a club can gather reliable data."
Added to this, Paul believes end-users cannot gain a snapshot of all the machines available "as manufacturers aren't yet combining their data". When this happens, it will make matters "far easier", he says.
"Still, clubs should do their own risk assessments, with the best person to manage it being the club manager, as they know the club, the machines and the staff. There is really no need to bring in consultants to undertake generic risk assessments - doing it in house with the right information can prove far more successful," he stresses.
"The only sure way to reduce the chances of vibration damage is staff rotation. Therefore, clubs need a multi-skilled staff base that can perform a manner of different tasks, all with the necessary safety precautions. That means that certain members of staff don't end up doing the same job for a prolonged period."
In the past, sometimes one man would do the same job for twenty years, he adds. "This just shouldn't be happening today."
Ultimately, training in this sector should never stop, believes Paul. "Whether someone has a qualification from two or twenty years ago, there is always a need to update the knowledge and keep up to date with industry changes."
Another key health and safety issue in the sector is the potential danger posed from noise in the workplace. The concern is such that, unless workers take precautions, many in the industry could face the threat of permanent hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) from occupational noise such as machinery, sustained traffic and other noise hazards.
The warning comes from charity Deafness Research UK, which adds that danger exists where workers are regularly exposed to high levels of noise, generally 80dBA or more.
Workers in the landscape industry are at particular risk because most outdoor machinery is used at close range and is likely to be in excess of 85dBA, the charity cautions.
"It's not just the loudness of the noise that determines whether your hearing is at risk," Deafness Research UK's Vivienne Michael adds. "The length of time you are exposed to it is important too. So, while your ears might safely tolerate a level of 80dBA for up to eight hours, when the noise level doubles, our toleration reduces to four hours.
"By 100dBA, our tolerance without ear protection is just a few minutes. And always after being in a noisy place, our ears need a quiet rest afterwards. However, no two people will have an identical tolerance to noise", she says. Research suggests that a genetic predisposition towards hearing loss is an important factor.
Survey findings published by Deafness Research UK show that almost 20% of tinnitus sufferers believe that their noisy working environment was the single most important factor in them developing the condition.
Ian Sumpter is keen to reinforce the necessity for people working in the industry to use the required protection and also ensure they are always aware of the machine they are using, warning against the use of personal music players while operating machinery.
"We always recommend iPods and the like are not used while operating machinery," he says. "If music is listened to, it is normally under protective ear defenders rather than instead of them. It is always best practice, however, to be able to hear the machine operating so that any change in pitch of engine or cutting units can be picked up as soon as possible, as this is often indicative of a mechanical fault or fault with the cutting units, which could affect the quality of cut."
Leading machinery manufacturer John Deere is also committed to raising the awareness of noise damage in the industry, and is one of several manufacturers who sponsor a European working group, under the direction of the European Garden Machinery Federation (EGMF).
The group has been involved in research projects looking into noise and sound quality, and the development of new technology to help produce quieter machinery.
The typical source of noise from grass care machinery is engine exhaust, engine cooling fan, gears and hydraulic components. Reduction of noise at source is the most desirable control method, but often the most difficult.
The noise levels on existing John Deere machines are reduced in a number of ways, from the use of fibreglass hoods with aerodynamic styling, improved deck materials, electric fan drives and air intake silencers, to isolating components under sound dampening material and the elimination of certain parts that transmit noise in engines and transmissions.
Henry Bredin, Product Marketing Manager - Commercial Equipment, for John Deere, sees a sustained effort underway to improve safety. "There is a definite move in the marketplace towards reducing vibration exposure levels that could harm the end user in the long run," he says.
"The benchmark figure of 2.5/m2 vibration output for an eight-hour work session has, for the most part, gone out the window, as having the lowest vibration output on machinery is a real selling point for manufacturers now, and one we are all aiming to achieve. We are all trying to make a product that has the lowest output and this holds true for noise levels too."
Although the manufacturers have a common aim, sharing knowledge among them isn't happening as yet. "No real collaboration between the various manufacturers exists," says Henry, "and, even if it did, I'm not sure it would make much difference to the figures as product testing of all machines is highly susceptible to variations."
He explains further: "Some of the ride-on machines are tested on concrete, which produces a very different overall vibration level than on grass. Then there's the consideration that the end user might change the settings on a machine for a faster cut or for cutting a different material, and this would also affect the vibration output. Therefore, it is very difficult for machine manufacturers to produce figures that will accurately match the situations they are used in."
The operator is key in all of this, Henry stresses: "Ultimately though, the operator is the person we want to make sure is happiest, as they will be the ones using the products and they will be the ones who will be most annoyed if they start having vibration-related problems."
Hand-arm vibration is of particular concern to some manufacturers, Henry goes on. "Luckily for us, we don't make hand-held machines as I think those companies are worried by the potential damage that can be caused by hand-arm vibration, and the potential insurance matters that could be attached to it."
The public sector faces challenges, he maintains. "Overall, I feel the sports industry is in a better position than local authorities, who seem to have a harder time of it when it comes to ensuring that they have the correct machines and ensuring staff know how to use the machines properly, as well as being aware of their dangers."
John Deere is working on a number of solutions to the problems of whole body vibration, he adds. "We have been using the Anti Vibration System in some of our products. One use is ISO mounted engines on the ride-on mowers, which basically means fixing a rubber block between the engine and the driver's area to absorb some of the vibration."
Air seats in cabs are another advance on ride-ons. "These offer an alternative to having the traditional springs in the seat, instead employing a hydraulic seat filled with air to make the ride more comfortable and to help reduce the impact of vibration."
In summary, it is important for the industry to strike a balance between research and development into health and safety and actually making a profit. Having a sound safety plan needn't cost the earth but does require time to research the machines used and their potential effects on the user. But money is usually the central focus in any business, so health and safety shouldn't hinder the process.
Many manufacturers spend a lot of money trying to make mowers quieter, with a large proportion of their R&D budgets going towards meeting vibration and noise legislation requirements, sometimes at the expense of more direct customer benefits, such as increased productivity or improved quality of cut for example.
There has to be a limit to how much money can be spent on research and development overall. This is a similar situation to the introduction of new Tier 2, 3 and 4 engine technology, with new product development being increasingly driven by the need to satisfy emissions legislation rather than by any natural programme of innovation.
In part two of our Health & Safety feature, we will focus on pedestrian and hand-held machinery.