Sandy Says: Lawn Mowers, Flip Flops and Disaster

Aug. 1, 2009
Are you expecting a bloody tale of mangled toes and trips to the emergency room? Well, I have to disappoint you. But only because I'm lucky, not because I'm cautious or smart.

Just because I edit a magazine devoted to employee health and safety, doesn't mean I don't make a bone-headed move on occasion. Yesterday, as I was mowing my postage-stamp-sized lawn, a neighbor pointed to my exposed toes (in flip-flops) and called me a name that rhymes with “dumb gas.” You get the picture.

And he was right to remind me that I literally was risking a limb — or at least some toes — by being so foolish.

Mowing the lawn injures 200,000 people — 16,000 of them children — every year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most of these injuries, which include severed fingers and toes, limb amputations, broken bones, burns and eye injuries, can be prevented by following a few simple safety tips — tips like don't wear flip-flops while mowing the lawn.

My neighbor isn't the only person concerned about lawn mower safety. The American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery (ASRM), American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), American Society of Maxillofacial Surgeons (ASMS), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) have teamed up to prevent injuries and educate adults and children about the importance of lawn mower safety this summer.

“In 19 years of practice as a plastic surgeon and microsurgeon, some of the most devastating and disabling injuries I've treated are from lawn mower accidents,” said ASRM President William Zamboni, M.D. “It's especially concerning when children are injured, since most of these injuries are preventable.”

I know this to be a fact. Several years ago, a friend — who had gerry-rigged her lawnmower so that it didn't shut off when she released the handle (OK, even I'm not that stupid … sorry, Pam) — severed the tips of two fingers trying to dislodge a clump of grass. The only thing that saved her from even more devastating injuries was her love of long, artificial nails. Several summers before that, my uncle ran over his own foot while pulling the lawnmower backward and, if I remember correctly, amputated at least one of his own toes.

Many children suffer facial injuries as a result of being too close to operating lawnmowers. “Maxillofacial plastic surgeons treat numerous facial injuries caused by lawn mowers, particularly to children, and the effects can be devastating,” said ASMS President Kevin Kelly, M.D. “Very often, we see patients who suffer significant facial injuries by items thrown out of mowers like sticks and stones.”

I don't have children, but I do have dogs that love to chase tennis balls. Last year, one of these seemingly harmless tennis balls was sucked up into my lawnmower and released with such force that it ping-ponged between my house and my neighbor's, breaking two of my basement storm windows in the process. Had that ball been thrown higher, it easily could have broken my nose, injured one of my eyes, knocked out some teeth or even knocked me unconscious. (You'll be happy to hear that I did learn from that incident and the resulting bill to repair the windows and I now thoroughly check the yard for all toys, rocks and sticks before mowing.)

Experts offer the following tips to help prevent lawn mower-related injuries:

  • Children should be at least 12 years old before they operate any lawn mower, and at least 16 years old for a ride-on mower and children should never be passengers on ride-on mowers.

  • Always wear sturdy shoes while mowing, not sandals.

  • Young children should be kept at a safe distance from the area you are mowing.

  • Pick up stones, toys and debris from the lawn to prevent injuries from flying objects.

  • Always wear eye and hearing protection.

  • Use a mower with a control that stops it from moving forward if the handle is released. (Pam!)

  • Never pull backward or mow in reverse unless absolutely necessary, and then carefully look for others behind you when you do. (Uncle Noah!)

  • Start and refuel mowers outdoors, not in a garage. Refuel with the motor turned off and cool.

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

“Lawn mowing can be dangerous to the operator as well as those nearby if proper safety precautions aren't taken. Physicians in this coalition often repair these heart wrenching injuries, and we feel it's our duty to help people avoid these accidents in the first place, said ASPS President John Canady, M.D.

As for me, I'll wear steel-toed shoes and protective eyewear the next time I mow, because I do not want to become a statistic!

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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