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Safe Operation of Hand-held Outdoor Power Equipment

by Tim Nephew
Sponsored by ECHO

Backpack Blower 2

Hand-held outdoor power equipment has made trimming and clean up around the home or farm much more efficient than in years past. The outdoor tool industry is constantly reinventing and developing better and more efficient equipment to cut down on the time it takes to maintain our lawns, shrubs and trees. Although the ease of operation of the equipment has improved dramatically over the years, operating hand-held power tools can cause severe injuries when used incorrectly or in an unsafe manner. 

According to a study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, power lawn trimmers and edgers have caused around 4,600 injuries annually that required medical attention. Also, a study by the Center for Injury Sciences estimated that in a period spanning nine years, there were 89,107 injuries specifically attributed to the use of lawn string trimmers. While these two studies involve string trimmers and edgers, other widely used outdoor tools such as leaf blowers and hedge trimmers have the same potential to cause injury with improper use.

In both of the previously mentioned studies of injury caused by hand-held power tools, nearly one-third of the injuries reported involved eye or facial damage. String trimmers are notorious for throwing rocks or pieces of wood at very high speeds which can travel great distances. Those operating the trimmers and even people located away from the immediate work area are at risk of injury from the flying debris. 

While there is the potential for injury from using hand-held power tools, millions of people use them safely for either work or home clean up. By following some common sense practices while using outdoor tools, you can greatly reduce the potential for injury. Here are a few things to keep in mind when using the various outdoor tools.

String Trimmers

Straight Trimmer

String trimmers – sometimes called weed whackers, weed whips, weed eaters or whipper snipper – are arguably the most heavily used outdoor power tool for consumers and professionals alike. Clearing grass around buildings, trees, fence posts and fence lines can be a time consuming task. You can greatly reduce the length of time you spend trimming with a quality string trimmer.

Most people are familiar with the basic make up of a string trimmer; it consists of a two or four cycle gas engine that is attached to either a curved or straight shaft ending with a trimmer head that holds spools of heavy nylon “strings” or cord. While less popular, there are also electric and battery powered string trimmers. The type of string trimmer typically used by homeowners tends to be more of a light duty trimmer with a smaller engine and a curved shaft, while professional type trimmers have a more powerful engine that is usually attached to a straight shaft.

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Safe operation of a string trimmer starts with a complete inspection of the trimmer before each use. Visually inspect the trimmer for things like loose bolts or nuts and make sure that you check and fill the oil and gas in a four stroke unit and properly mix the oil/gas ratio in a two stroke unit.

Check the trimmer head and make sure that the protective guard is in place. Add the correct diameter of line based on your units manufactures specifications. When using the string trimmer, try to keep the head of the unit from contacting the ground which may cause more of the string to strike any loose objects and send them airborne.

Curved Trimmer


It is very important to dress appropriately while operating the string trimmer. Most trimming occurs during warm weather and it’s tempting to wear shorts and a short-sleeved shirt when working around the yard or farm. However, wearing protective clothing can keep you covered and less prone to injury. Personal Protection Equipment, (PPE) such as safety glasses, gloves, long sleeved shirts and pants and boots covering the ankles, reduces the chance of flying material causing serious harm if it strikes you.

Hedge Trimmers 

If you have ever had to maintain a long line of hedges or even prune multiple bushes with a manual hedge trimmer, you can appreciate the efficiency and ease of operation of a powered hedge trimmer. Hedge trimmers come in many configurations from single bladed to double bladed and can be compact or configured with an extension pole for hard to reach areas. The hedge trimmer cuts in much the same way a sickle mower operates by the teeth moving rapidly along the hedge trimmer shaft as you shape the hedge or bush.

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Hedge trimmers should also be inspected before each use and making sure that all safety features such as kill switches and guards are in place and there are no loose or missing parts. Checking oil and gas levels is also an every use consideration, and consult your operator’s manual for any other suggested practices.

When operating a hedge trimmer, keep your body centered and don’t over extend your reach while trimming which may cause you to fall. Wearing proper clothing and PPE is also very important when using a hedge trimmer. Trimming and shaping of bushes and shrubs is best accomplished in small increments using a sweeping style across the surface.

Leaf Blowers

Backpack Blower 1

Leaf blowers are a great outdoor tool for fall leaf cleanup as opposed to raking them manually, and they are increasingly being used year-round for cleanup of grass, general debris and even snow. Leaf blowers are usually powered by either two or four stroke gas engines but are also available in battery or electric versions.

Blowers have predominantly been configured with two stroke gas engines which helps keep the weight of the unit down, but there are more powerful four stroke units that also produce less smoke. Consumer model blowers are usually hand held but can also be found in a back pack mounted style. The blowers can be used to blow leaves or other debris ahead of the blower, or they can be used like a vacuum cleaner to pull material into a bag.

Handheld Blower


Again, checking gas and oil volumes and mix ratios is essential before daily use. Visually inspecting the unit for loose attachments is a good practice and in the case of back pack style blowers, carefully examine the straps that hold the unit in place for wear or adjustment. Leaf blowers have the ability to move leaves, sticks and small rocks at a very high speed. It is important to make sure that the direction you are blowing does not contain people, pets or property that may be damaged by the airborne debris.

General Safety Rules for Outdoor Hand-held Power Tools

Chain Saw 2

Whether you are using string trimmers, hedge trimmers, leaf blowers or any of the many other outdoor hand-held power tools, there are general safety considerations that should be followed regardless of the tool. Here is a list of safety rules suggested by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, (www.ext.vt.edu):

• Make sure there are no bystanders, children, or pets within a 50-foot radius. 
• Wear eye and ear protection equipment when operating power tools. 
• Wear protective clothing. Long pants, closed-toe shoes, and gloves are recommended. Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry.
• Inspect the area where the power tools are to be used. Remove all stones, sticks, wire, and other foreign objects that could interfere with the operation and cause personal injury. 
• Do not operate any power tool while under the influence of alcohol, medications, or drugs or when ill or fatigued.
• Never start a gasoline-powered tool inside an enclosed area. Breathing exhaust fumes can be fatal.
• Follow fueling and premixing guidelines strictly. Wipe up any fuel spillage and replace the fuel cap immediately to minimize potential for fuel contamination and explosion.
• Never leave power equipment unattended with the engine running.
• Remember that for all power equipment a “safety always” attitude is the best defense against accidents and injury




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