More On The Daily Grind Of Landscaping

I got this mail from Tim Simon Hall of Australia: Hi, Steve, I’m from Sydney, Aus. I have mates in landscaping and other trades but the landscapers say it is the hardest job going and they often get life long injuries early. Is this the case and how do they prevent this? I’m a police officer and my boy is almost old enough to start thinking about the future. I want him to do a trade and I can sure see the art in landscaping. what can you tell us? Thanks!

First of all, thanks, Tim, for noticing this little corner of the working world. I will be delighted to answer your questions. I have dealt with some aspects of safety in other posts in here, but I understand how dense the blog has become, so it’s not necessarily easy referencing them in here. Dealing with your question also gives me an opportunity to deal more specifically with job site safety.

Job Site Safety – Machinery

The first element of safety concerns involve respect for items bigger than us. No matter the brilliant injury-free track record of a machine operator, any time a large machine enters our projects, one needs to understand the reach and predicted patterns of its travel and work. Even the afore-mentioned operator cannot see behind him. Indeed, the blind spots in a large machine grow proportionately to the machine size. Bottom line? Workers and helpers not intimately involved with the chores of the machine always need to maintain a wide berth. These excavators, back hoes, bulldozers and Bobcats are solid steel, heavy as they can be and utterly lethal in the potential impact with the human frame. In fact, an operator may not realize there even was an impact if such were to occur.

My instructions to new people are to give a completely wide berth to these labor-saving devices. Understanding the reach and potential injury radius of any machine under power on a job site is absolutely vital, not only to prevent injuries, but to literally survive impact with these behemoths.

Below is a look at just 2 of the machines which have become the landscaper’s very best friend. Unseen is a Bobcat/Skid steer machine which was used concurrently. Not only is this a lot of noise on a project, but it is also one cluster of danger for the unwary.

Have I had incidents where I struck workers while operating? Yes, I have. I once had a new guy stroll to where I was excavating for a pond and come within the radius of where I was excavating, then circling 180 degrees to put the overburden into a truck. As I took my loaded bucket in its circle, whipping it with some speed, my worker walked exactly into the arc and he got nailed. I had slowed it down as I noticed him, but the momentum struck him and knocked him about 10 feet in the air onto the ground. I shut the machine down in a cold sweat and rushed over to him, where there were the other guys. Imagine my relief when he batted his eyes, focusing, and smiled and mentioned he was sorry he got in the way. My relief was palpable, needless to say. I gave him the day off with pay, partly because seeing him reminded me of how close that call was and partly because he was an excellent working guy who had got confused about where he was. It was the closest to a job site fatality that I ever experienced. I sweat when I even relate this story.

Parts Of The Body By Injury

Next, there are indeed secrets to staying healthy, some of which are common sense and some of which may not be. Typical injuries in landscaping involve just a few very predictable areas of the body, foremost among which is the back.

The back is this fulcrum around which the entirety of lifting revolves. The physics of lifting require hands strong enough to hold onto an object. It requires also the legs and a pair of knees which can bend and support the weight of the object being lifted. Finally, the back supplies the resistance to nearly the entire weight being addressed, acting as a fulcrum. It is a complete truism in landscaping – and one of the very first lessons a safety coordinator gives out to a new guy – that, in lifting, one uses the power of legs to rise and not by bending the back. Relying on the back for lifting, as opposed to securing a good grip, keeping a completely straight back and using the legs and knees to rise, is a dangerous mistake. The length of the muscles of the back insure problems that denser muscle groups such as those on the arms and legs offer will happen if misused.

The back must always stay straight. There is no other advice which could be more straightforward or relevant. If you watch an Olympic Weightlifting Event, keep your eye on the back of no matter who is competing. At every stage, it straightens more as the weight shifts its height. The “action” is not in the back. The “action” of lifting is in other muscle groups, more importantly the legs.

The Legs

Which brings us to the legs and feet. The science of lifting, as well as the science of repetitive movement such as shoveling or running wheelbarrows – chores which can last an entire 8 hour work day – is not just the science of depressing work. ;-)

It is what the landscaping trade so often consists of. No matter how many labor-saving machines we may have on a project, we will always find corners and hard-to-get-to areas which require individual effort to address. Bear in mind as well the sad existence of Murphy’s Law -”If something can go wrong, it probably will.”

Machines break down, almost always at the worst possible times. On a project requiring a time limit for finishing, this can and sometimes does imply a different form of labor in the guise of incredibly demanding and hard work. So we find ourselves faced with abundant material needing placement on a project with nothing other than our smiling faces, some wheelbarrows and shovels to make it happen. In case one wonders, this means using a shovel or tool to load the wheelbarrows, loading them, then taking the wheelbarrow on whatever wild ride is required to place the material where it goes.

The Shovel

The single most ubiquitous item in the tool arsenal of landscaping is the good old shovel. We do everything with it – excavate, fill, smooth out, chip away and we load our wheelbarrows with them. They also come in a variety of shapes, designed for all these different uses.

Describing the uses of all the various shapes of shovels is delightful but less than useful here. The single most important aspect of the active verb: “shoveling” involves safety because “shoveling” carries some dangers. Especially considering the repetition involved in almost any incremental shoveling project, we reach the logic that only proper usage will take one through a full day without suffering injury.

Once again, the single most important safety factor of any shoveling exercise involves keeping the back straight. Of all injuries in landscaping, this is by far the most common. Correct technique of shoveling means bending the knees and using them for reach and loading purposes. The repetitive nature of using shovels will inevitably locate the weakest point and cause pain at that spot when it becomes somewhat dangerous. If one’s back gets this message, it may be time to re-learn the approach and adapt to a better structural approach. At no time is it cool at all to bend the back in order to lift or load. Once this sinks in and a process is discovered allowing the back to do its work appropriately  a major lesson in primary landscaping is understood.

The Benefits Of Safety And The Work itself

In logging, there is a saying among fallers of those gigantic trees out West: “There are only old loggers and young loggers.” What this implies is the career-ending nature of the injuries available to such a high risk trade. I mean, you have “widow-makers” – those snags or dead branches which a shaking tree breaks loose, cascading 400 pounds of branch downwards at a frightening and sometimes silent trip onto our erstwhile faller. You also have misbehaving chain saws which can call for carrying our friend out of a forest in time to apply the 200 plus stitches it takes to repair a leg or stomach which encountered a recently sharpened flying chain at 150 MPH. Not pretty.

Well, the good news is that landscaping is not that scary. Yes, the worker’s compensation rates tend to be a bit higher than that of an office worker, based on real history. But there are young, middle and old landscapers.

The virtues of hard work are always obvious. I suspect we humans get our justifications of so many verities from sheer hard work. We are proud not only of what we make, in landscaping, but we are also proud of our teams who accomplish the feats of construction. We are also strong as hell.

The health benefits of the trade are, frankly, many-fold. But, hey, it’s not for everyone. There is much drudgery and repetitive work in this trade. We can very much hate the day on the job. Looking at a pile the size of Texas and knowing today we will move that, 1/7th of a yard at a time is some depressing futurism. And yet, as I have mentioned many times, going home after a day of accomplishing just that has hidden rewards which others can only guess at. The endorphin level is out the roof. You get high, working like this. Plus, it’s all natural! No one is arresting a happy landscaper. The great solid and good feeling of leaving a day’s work back on the job is literally biochemical and naturally so. Consistent hard work brings a region and width of literal felt pleasure many people will never understand.

Thus, not only do we get the manifold pleasure of experiencing in depth rewards, biochemically on a felt level, we also develop the rewards of seeing a physical project take shape and then, wonderfully, complete itself through our efforts. We arrive at a lasting monument of physical accomplishment which has its own reward – nor is it small.

2 thoughts on “More On The Daily Grind Of Landscaping

  1. Great points about safety, Steve. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was “do not approach the active zone of a machine unless you have eye contact with the operator.” Just like your story with the excavator, one of the benefits of a skid loader is that the operator can quickly snap it 90 degrees to the side, which could be disastrous.

    I think the challenge with getting young guys to embrace proper form and lifting technique is that, well, they’re young guys. I was bulletproof when I was 20 and building stone walls. My body has exacted its revenge in my late 30s.

  2. Ha ha, man, how true is that? The worst accident ever on one of my sites I described elsewhere in this blog. A young hockey player I hired in Vancouver was wheeling a big load of 2″-6″ River Rocks in a wheelbarrow across some soft dirt and the barrow tipped to the side. He tried – foolishly – to save it, but the 200 plus pound load was not in the mood. His back got as tweaked as any back I ever saw. I thought he’d broken it. What was worse was that, in running over, I could hear an ambulance on its way. My heart dropped.

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