Practicing Cutting-Edge Safety

By | July 7th, 2017

The Cape Club, East Falmouth, Mass.

While mowing is a routine practice for golf course maintenance staffs, superintendents must be diligent about providing proper and consistent training to ensure the safety of their workers when operating equipment.

At golf course properties, mowing schedules and the height of cut can change frequently, depending on course conditions. The quality of every cut should never be compromised, however. And another aspect of mowing is also non-negotiable: the safety of the crew members who operate the mowers.

Begin with the Basics
Safety is paramount at Bella Vista (Ark.) POA, a private, 36,000-acre, member-based community with six 18-hole golf courses and one nine-hole layout.


• Proper training that is consistent and ongoing promotes safety for golf course maintenance staff members when they operate mowers and other equipment.
• Golf course properties need to be prepared to adjust their mowing strategies and practices to adapt to turf conditions that can change because of weather, damage or disease, or special events.
• Routine equipment maintenance and the use of protective devices can help protect crew members from harm when operating machinery.

“Because [Bella Vista] operates like a corporation, a Director of Safety goes over basic equipment safety with new employees during orientation,” explains Keith Ihms, CGCS, the property’s Director of Golf Course Maintenance.

The safety training begins with the basics. Before using equipment, for example, employees are trained to check the oil and do a walk-around of the machine, to make sure all parts are greased and tight. They are also taught to check tire pressure and look for leaks, by making sure there are no spills on the ground or gasoline odors.

“Some pieces of equipment have a lot more levels, so we explain what they do, and why,” adds Ihms, who served as President of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in 2014.

After safety training during orientation, the superintendent or a longtime crew member on the new employee’s assigned course will teach him or her about mowing patterns or other nuances on that particular layout.

However, safety concerns do not end with orientation. The Bella Vista maintenance staff has weekly safety meetings where various issues, including proper use of equipment, are discussed. And several times a year, the Human Resources department conducts training that covers issues such as safe equipment operation. “The Director of Safety comes out and does audits as well,” adds Ihms.

Bella Vista (Ark.) POA

In addition, Bella Vista’s superintendents post maintenance tasks on job boards each morning and offer safety reminders, such as waiting for dew to evaporate before mowing certain holes. The superintendents also remind crew members to clean up debris before they mow and to avoid driving over rocks.

Maintenance staff members at Bella Vista, which has only riding mowers, also are required to wear seat belts as well as the hardhats, ear plugs and safety goggles that are provided by the property for when they mow.

Finding the Right Comfort Levels
At Chautauqua (N.Y.) Golf Club, Golf Course Superintendent Trevor Burlingame says safety is part of overall equipment training for crew members. “We don’t have a real formal training regimen, but it’s constant and ongoing,” he adds.

Burlingame or his assistant superintendent train crew members on the safe use of the mowers at the 36-hole property. “I will stay with them for a little bit, and then I just stay away from them,” he says. “Some guys get really nervous when you’re right there watching them, so I will go away and come back a few holes later.”

Keith Ihms, CGCS,
Director of Golf Course Maintenance, Bella Vista POA

He reminds crew members to keep their fingers out of the blades when they wash mowers, and to be wary of the banks on a property that has “decent grade changes.”

“Our steepest banks are along some of our greens, so we tell them not to mow too far up on the banks,” Burlingame reports.

He jokes that he hires staff members for their “entertainment value.” In all seriousness, however, he looks for people who can work well with others.

“I can train nearly anybody,” Burlingame says. “Some guys are more naturally equipment operators, and I give them the most important mowing tasks.” He also assigns mowing tasks to people who have a strong attention to detail.

Making the Right Turns
The Cape Club (formerly Ballymeade Country Club), a Troon resort property in East Falmouth, Mass., uses only triplex mowers on its 18-hole golf course, which was rebuilt last year with new putting greens and green complexes, resurfaced and expanded tee boxes, the addition of new tee boxes on some holes, and widened, re-contoured fairways.

“Each employee is started on walk mowers on the tees,” says Golf Course Superintendent Bob Deasy. “They are always put with a senior staff member for the first few days at work who will train them on their day-to-day mowing tasks and to learn the property. For more advanced work, the assistant or golf course superintendent will train the staff member on new jobs.”

Preventing Rollovers

Mowing turf is a routine occurrence at golf course properties. However, grounds crew members sometimes need to navigate their mowers around challenging terrain such as sudden drop-offs, steep slopes, or ponds. Under these circumstances, the dangers of rollovers are real, and maintenance workers need to take extra precautions to avoid situations that can have disastrous consequences.

In addition to the primary goal of ensuring worker safety, taking steps to prevent mower rollovers can reduce costs tied to worker’s compensation claims and equipment repairs, and reduce disruptions to turf maintenance routines.

At Bella Vista (Ark.) POA, all equipment has rollover protection (ROP). The property has also modified or gotten rid of older pieces of equipment that lacked ROP. When used in combination with seatbelts and safe operating procedures, ROP can reduce serious injuries and death from rollover accidents.

“If we use the right piece of equipment in the right place, we shouldn’t have any rollovers,” says Keith Ihms, CGCS, the property’s Director of Golf Course Maintenance.

When possible, Bella Vista has also tried to reduce the need to mow areas that might be prone to rollovers. “We raise the height of cut and make more of a natural area,” notes Ihms. “This changes the frequency of when we mow these areas and how we mow them.”

The prevention of rollovers has several advantages, Ihms adds. The most obvious and important benefit, of course, is worker safety. However, prevention can lead to monetary savings as well, by reducing the costs of worker’s compensation claims and equipment repairs. In addition, minimizing equipment downtime reduces disruptions to turf maintenance and improves the playability of the golf course.

Trevor Burlingame, Golf Course Superintendent of Chautauqua (N.Y.) Golf Club, agrees that proper equipment can help to prevent rollovers. Four years ago, Chautauqua acquired mowers that have a wide wheel base and a low center of gravity for the surrounds. “They hold the banks a little better,” notes Burlingame. “They are similar to our big rough mowers, but they are lighter weight.”

Chautauqua’s crew members also use weed eaters on the banks, which helps prevent rollovers by keeping mowers off these areas.

At The Cape Club in East Falmouth, Mass., the grounds crew mows hillsides when the areas are dry, to minimize slipping. Simply put, Golf Course Superintendent Bob Deasy says, “We do not put operators in spots where rollovers can occur.”

Staff members are observed by Deasy and his assistant throughout the day to evaluate their mowing techniques. “If some direction is needed, it is given then,” notes Deasy. “If the staff member is working adequately, they are left alone to finish their job.”

However, he notes, “The majority of the staff had never worked on a golf course before. The entire staff had to be trained on general maintenance and golf course etiquette.”

Proper turning is also an important aspect of mowing for aesthetic and safety purposes. At Bella Vista, superintendents teach crew members how to turn mowers so they don’t end up in a bunker or down a hill. “Experienced operators know to avoid dangerous points such as steep slopes,” says Ihms. “They know to approach the rough from certain angles to mow it safely.”

Burlingame uses a dry-erase board with pictures of a green, tee, and fairway, to illustrate how they should look. Then he takes crew members out on the greens to show them—based on the terrain—where, how, and why they should turn their mowers.

“We turn gently, rather than sharply, on the apron,” Burlingame explains. “It’s important to turn properly, especially in the heat of the summer. Otherwise, it can wear on the turf if we turn in the same areas, causing disease and insect damage more quickly. We also turn in different areas, and not the same place every single time.”

Equipment suppliers and distributors play a role in safety training as well. Bella Vista’s suppliers and distributors furnish instructional manuals, DVDs and videos. “They will go over most of the mowing equipment when they drop it off with superintendents, but not with the entire staff,” says Ihms.

If Chautauqua Golf Club changes equipment brands or models, personnel from its distributor will come to the property to train the staff.

Cross Training Counts
To further ensure mowing safety, golf course superintendents often cross-train their employees as well. “We cross-train full-time employees to use any equipment we have,” says Ihms. “All of our full-time employees can operate anything that goes on the golf course.”

However, seasonal employees who show an aptitude for mowing or equipment operation will be trained on triplex greens mowers. “That’s the first thing we train them to use,” Ihms states.

After more than 20 years in the golf course maintenance business, Burlingame says he has developed a feel for assigning crew members to mowing tasks. However, he also cross-trains his staff members on the use of all of the equipment.

“If someone isn’t at work one day, someone else can step in and do the job,” he explains. “It allows us to not skip a beat. We just keep on moving.”

Deasy agrees. “We try our best to cross-train all of our staff,” he explains. “It makes calling an audible much easier when everyone is capable of completing the majority of the tasks on a golf course.”

Making Adjustments
Golf course superintendents don’t only call audibles in an employee’s absence, however. Sometimes, turf or weather conditions, or special events, require on-the-spot adjustments as well.

Bob Deasy, Golf Course Superintendent, The Cape Club

Bella Vista has redone some of its bunkers with steeper slopes, so the staff must now mow around them differently. In the last two years, the property started leasing deck mowers that can be used on steep slopes and slide in one direction or another. This year, Bella Vista also bought a new slope mower that offers features such as all-wheel drive, downhill braking, a wide stance, a low center of gravity, and a weight transfer system that improves traction.

“In the past, we used weed eaters on steep slopes,” reports Ihms. “We didn’t [maintain those slopes] as often, because it took a lot more labor and time.”

The Bella Vista property has a lot of bridges and roads to cross, and the staff also receives training to mow wet or flooded spots. Five of its golf courses are prone to flooding, Ihms says, and the property has experienced three “100-year” floods in the last seven years.

“Floods cause silt on slopes, which make them slippery, and mowers can get in an awkward position if you turn them too sharply,” Ihms notes.

The course maintenance staff at Chautauqua GC adjusts its mowing practices for tournaments such as the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Men’s Division III National Championships, which has been held on the property’s Lake Course since 2000. With a field that averages 95 golfers, the tournament attracts team and individual qualifiers from community and two-year colleges across the country for the 72-hole competition each June. To prepare for the tournament, the grounds crew will step up its mowing frequency and use more growth regulators and fertilizer.

Typically, Chautauqua’s maintenance staff mows the greens five days a week and rolls them on the other two days. Fairways are mowed twice a week, and tees and aprons three times a week. Depending on growth, the rough and greens surrounds are mowed once a week.

At The Cape Club, Golf Course Superintendent Bob Deasy puts an emphasis on cross-training to ensure continued safety for the inevitable times when an “audible” must be called because of changes in crew members’ availability.

The staff lowers the height of cut to increase the greens speed during tournaments. However, Burlingame adds, “We try to maintain the course like we always do.”

If the turf shows signs of stress, the Chautauqua crew reduces the frequency of mowing and raises the height of cut. “We get stress, but not for the length of time that other places get it,” explains Burlingame.

Because The Cape Club maintains its golf course like a private club, Deasy says there is no difference between day-to-day play and tournaments, other than rolling the greens to increase speed if necessary.

The Cape Club staff also makes no changes after aerification. However, notes Deasy, “During the spring we will mow at higher heights of cut and work the heights down to their desired height for the season. We do not mow if it is too wet, [and] we keep a watchful eye on the radar when severe weather or thunderstorms come in, to make sure our staff is at the shop under cover.”

Well-Oiled Machines
Proper equipment maintenance is a key safety element as well—as are the mechanics and service technicians who play important behind-the-scenes roles for properties’ course-maintenance teams.

Bella Vista’s mechanics and service technicians keep track of any operational or safety issues with the property’s equipment. In addition, reports Ihms, “We are in the process of getting them on the equipment more often. This gives them a better understanding about why a superintendent or employee would be so adamant about something such as the quality of cut, or why we topdress greens. To them, that just ruins the cut on the mowers—but this gives them better appreciation and insight into what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Bella Vista (Ark.) POA

After mowers have been used, a Bella Vista service technician checks for loose belts, to make sure that safety switches and backup cameras are working, and that mirrors are in place.

“If the equipment is maintained properly, it’s safe,” notes Ihms. “The area you’re mowing is the bigger concern.”
Burlingame looks for several features in his mowers, such as the quality of cut, user friendliness and price. To keep them in proper working order, Chautauqua’s equipment manager checks the quality of cut every day. Other routine maintenance duties include checking the tires and making sure the safety switches are working.

The Cape Club staff follows safety instructions for all of its equipment. Before use, all fluids, along with grease points, are checked.

“Safety and training is something we all need to continue to do more of,” says Ihms. “Safety is not something you can ignore.”

Protecting Their Turf
Grounds crew members can help protect the turf as well when they mow the golf course, and superintendents rely on their staff to bring attention to potential problems.

“Some employees report issues that they see on the golf courses when they’re mowing the turf,” notes Ihms. “An extra set of eyes is pretty important.”

In addition, he says, Bella Vista’s superintendents have more than a supervisory role. They also perform maintenance tasks such as changing cups and spraying greens, so they see turf conditions firsthand.

Burlingame also depends on crew members to give him feedback about golf course conditions. “I can’t see everything, so it’s nice to have their input,” he reveals. “Most of them have been here long enough to pick up on things, and a lot of them are golfers, so we can spot problems pretty quickly.”

Ditto for Deasy. “The majority of the staff is very observant, and they will notice areas where things are not the way they are supposed to be,” he says.

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