With the weather warming up, the first trim of hedges, screens and specimen evergreens is on the calendar for many gardeners. Gardening is a great activity, and it is good exercise too, but there are hidden risks. Accidents are much more common than often thought, and although mowing lawns is the most dangerous activity, falls and cuts are alarmingly common too. Trimming hedges and evergreens involves ladders and sharp tools, so it pays to know what you are doing and to take care. Strangely, professionals are trained and often certified to use equipment and tools that home gardeners simply pick up at a hardware and start using with no understanding of the risks, or how to work safely. Don’t add yourself to the accident statistics.
Keep tools safe for use
Hedge trimmers are potentially dangerous, so make sure you know how to use them safely. The first step is to read the manual and pay attention to the specific safety features of your machine. All three types of trimmers – electric, gasoline and battery – have their own potential problems, and if you aren’t aware of them accidents are more likely.
- Keep equipment maintained and sharp – clean your machine after use. Prepare it properly for winter storage. Lubricate as needed. Have the blades sharpened regularly. Depending on your machine, you may be able to learn how to do that correctly yourself, or you can take it to a professional. Sharp tools are no only safer, as they are less likely to snag, but they make clean cuts, so your hedge will look better too.
- Check all cords and plugs – never use an electric trimmer with a damaged cord, or loose plugs. Even in a short-circuit doesn’t kill you, the shock can throw you off a ladder.
- Never work with electricity in damp weather – if you live in an area where damp and rainy weather is common, a gasoline or battery machine may be a better choice.
- Switch off when moving around – unplug your trimmer if it doesn’t have a safety lock. Stop a gasoline engine. Walking around or climbing ladders with a running machine is an accident waiting to happen.
- Store in a secure place – children are fascinated by tools. Make sure they can’t get at the trimmer by storing it in a locker or locked shed.
Use Tools Safely
Just as important as keeping the tools themselves safe, is using them safely. Never be in a hurry – that’s when accidents happen. Take your time, get into the correct positions to work, operate tools safely, and wear safety equipment.
- Wear safety goggles and gloves – flying particles and dust can get into your eyes. That happening suddenly can distract you and cause an accident, and of course the particle in your eye is already an accident. Wear gloves that give you a better grip and protect your hands. If up a ladder, wear a hard hat – professionals do it, and you can too. A hat with an integrated face shield is more comfortable than goggles.
- Keep your feet safe – don’t work in bare feet or flipflops. When standing on the ground you can carelessly lower the tip of moving trimmers to your feet. Wear sturdy outdoor shoes – you will have a better grip on the ground, and less chance of slipping too.
- Always keep both hands on the trimmer – this is a big one. Trimmers have a grip for the second hand – use it all the time. Not only does it allow you to balance the weight, reducing strain, but you can’t accidently get your free hand in the blade if you don’t have a hand free. If you need to stretch out single-handed to trim, move your position instead.
- Never touch the blade while plugged in – never, ever carry a trimmer by the blade. Never try to remove something jammed in it without first unplugging or turning off.
- Only cut thin branches – if it has been a while since you trimmed, some of the branches you need to cut may be too thick. Don’t try to hold one end with one hand, while operating the trimmer with the other, as a way to cut it. Carry hand pruners – in a holster – and use them to cut anything too thick for an easy cut with the trimmers.
Working at height
Standing on the ground and trimming is one thing – working off ladders or platforms is another thing altogether.
- Stay on the ground – the safest approach is to invest in extendible trimmers with enough height to trim from the ground. If the blade can be tilted at an angle you can even trim the top from the ground. As well as being much safer, it is a lot faster and easier working from the ground, so you save time and effort too.
- Use a tripod ladder – If you need to use a ladder, regular step-ladders are not ideal. Tripod ladders, also called orchard ladders, with flared bases and a single back leg, are much safer. The flared base reduces the chance of tipping, and the single leg allows you to put the ladder facing the hedge, instead of sideways. The tripod leg fits right inside the hedge. This is a much easier working position, especially for trimming the top. If you have trees to prune too, you will find that so much easier with a tripod ladder. These are the choice of professionals, but strangely rarely used by home gardeners.
- Stop the feet sinking in the ground – on soft ground the feet of a ladder can easily sink in. If that happens when you are up it, the ladder can easily tip. Have a board of a suitable size to place underneath the feet. Not only will that prevent sinking, it will give you a more stable base. Have a few small pieces with you to level it as necessary. Tripod ladders don’t have an anchor on the third leg, and usually don’t need support – they are designed for soft surfaces, and they can be dangerous if used on asphalt or pathways. Have a regular step-ladder as well for those situations.
- Never climb an unstable ladder – always keep the base of a ladder horizontal. If it is crooked it will tip with your weight on top. Falls are a major gardening accident, and they can be serious if not fatal.
All these things are common sense, but it is amazing how often people get themselves into dangerous situations. Bravado and taking risks seems to be a ‘guy thing’, but staying alive, with all your fingers attached, is a ‘guy thing’ too!