Amid all the green lawns and manicured gardens of summer lies a grim statistic: Every year, while mowing the grass, cutting a branch, or power washing a deck, at least 100 people die and an estimated 143,000 are injured badly enough to require a trip to the emergency room.
Consumer Reports is here to help you avoid either of those fates.
The injuries people suffer run the gamut from overexertion and dehydration to cuts and amputations from using all kinds of power equipment. It’s also worth noting that in our research, we also came across a disturbing number of injuries associated with a common piece of equipment that doesn’t have a motor at all: ladders. Falls from ladders cause more injuries than all the power equipment in our research combined, resulting in broken backs, ankles, legs, and hips. (Check out these three simple steps to stay safe on a ladder.)
But using power equipment can cause far worse accidents. When working in the yard turns deadly, it can be due to carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas-powered engine running in an enclosed space, for example, or people getting trapped under large equipment, like a riding lawn mower.
And it’s not just the person doing the yard work who’s at risk. Bystanders also get hurt, such as children who have been killed or injured when playing near a mower or other outdoor power gear.
To help you avoid getting hurt—or worse—CR analyzed data on injuries related to outdoor gear and power equipment from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which is maintained by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
We looked at records representing 428,474 injuries that resulted in visits to the emergency room from 2015 to 2017, as well as 383 reported fatalities from 2015 to 2018. Our analysis focused on injuries related to outdoor power equipment typically used around the home.
None of this gets you off the hook for working in the yard. “There are some simple precautions you can take to avoid hurting yourself or others,” says Don Huber, director of product safety at Consumer Reports. Below are details on the kinds of injuries people suffer using five common pieces of power equipment—lawn mower, string trimmer/power clipper, pressure washer, chain saw, and generator—and CR’s expert advice for how to stay safe.
Annual ER visits: 87,600
A lot of things can go wrong when you’re using a mower, considering its motor can spin a sharp blade faster than 200 miles per hour. That blade can fling a projectile like a rock or dog toy as far as 100 feet. But a mower’s blade can cause injuries without the machine even being on: About 20 percent of people who get hurt cut themselves, mostly on their fingers or hands while changing or sharpening the mower blade or removing something stuck in it.
When a walk-behind or riding mower is in use, the injuries can be considerably more gruesome. Those sharp, spinning blades can amputate a finger, toe, or even a foot when someone slips under the mower, as happened to 3 percent of the more than 85,000 people injured by mowers. Some of those were small children. “When you’re working in your yard, you should always be aware of your surroundings, especially if any children or bystanders are nearby,” says Huber. “This is especially important when using loud equipment like a lawn mower because you can’t hear someone approaching.”
The most dangerous scenario? Using a riding mower over uneven terrain. Most fatalities occurred when a riding mower flipped, say, over an embankment, pinning the operator underneath. A less common, but just as deadly cause is carbon monoxide poisoning. That’s what happened to a 40-year-old Ohio man who died when working on a running mower in a detached garage. A mower running for an hour can produce as much exhaust as a dozen cars. Carbon monoxide can accumulate when a machine with a fuel-burning engine is running in an enclosed space. Five other victims died when working on their mowers in a garage or shed.
How to Stay Safe Using a Mower
Before you turn on your mower, whether it’s a walk-behind or riding model, check your lawn for anything that could become a projectile. That includes rocks, stray toys or sports gear, or fallen branches. And even if it’s hot outside, skip the shorts and flip flops for sturdy closed-toe shoes with good traction and long pants to protect your legs. Keep young children and pets out of the yard while you’re mowing, and never let a child sit on your lap on a riding mower or tractor. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends that children be at least 12 years old before operating a walk-behind mower, and 16 years old before using a riding mower.
When you’re mowing, always remember to:
- Pay extra attention when you’re mowing on an incline (and refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations of how steep an incline you can mow). If you’re on a riding mower, drive it up and down slopes to avoid it tipping over and pinning you underneath. With a walk-behind mower, it’s the opposite: Mow parallel to the slope, not up and down, because it’s easier to control the mower when you’re not struggling to push it up an incline.
- If a stray branch gets in your way while you’re using a walk-behind mower, don’t just bend over and pick it up with the mower running, because you could easily cut your fingers on the mower’s blade. Always release the mower’s bail lever—also referred to as the “deadman” control—so that the blade stops.
- To avoid slipping, don’t mow the grass when it’s wet. Also, you won’t get a good cut with wet grass.
When doing maintenance on your mower, always:
- Wear heavy-duty work gloves when checking or changing your mower’s blades to avoid getting cut.
- Work on your mower only when it’s turned off—and the engine is cold.
- Add gas only when you’re outdoors, not inside a garage or shed. And make sure the engine is off and has cooled first.
String Trimmers and Power Clippers
Annual ER visits: 16,900
Deaths: None reported
When you need to neaten up the edges of your lawn, a string trimmer is the best tool for the job. But with its super-fast rotation, the string in a string trimmer can easily cut through your skin or send debris flying, hitting you or someone nearby. No wonder, then, that these and other power clippers cause their fair share of yard work injuries. Though string trimmers and clippers typically cause lacerations, power clippers have been the cause of finger amputations.
You could also suffer from overexertion while using string trimmers and power cutters—from our research, some victims reported shortness of breath or heart problems. A few ER visits were from people who fell while using a trimmer or clipper on a ladder or in a tree.
How to Stay Safe Using a String Trimmer or Power Clipper
Although string trimmers have a shield to deflect debris that might kick up, you’ll still want to wear gloves, protective eyewear, boots, and long pants. All gas models and some electric models can be so loud that you’ll need hearing protection, too. Follow the same precautions for using other kinds of power clippers.
With trimmers especially, always check the areas you plan to trim for any loose items, such as toys, balls, or fallen branches that can be kicked up by the trimmer and hurt you or others. And make sure children, pets, and other bystanders are at least 50 feet away from where you’re working. If someone wanders by, turn off the trimmer.
Other tips to keep you from getting cut, or worse:
- Never start a gas trimmer in a shed or garage, where carbon monoxide exhaust gas can accumulate—it can be lethal.
- When you start a gas trimmer with a pull cord, make sure the trimmer is on solid ground to keep it—and yourself—stable.
- If you’re using a corded electric string trimmer, keep the cord safely out of the way so that you don’t trip over it and fall, losing control of the trimmer. And take care not to accidentally slice the power cord with the trimmer.
- Use a string trimmer only when you’re standing on the ground so that you don’t lose your balance. And keep the cutting head below your waist for the same reason.
- Always cut away from yourself to avoid being hit by the weeds or brush you are trying to get rid of.
Annual ER visits: 7,500
Deaths: 2 fatalities reported in 2016 and 2017
A pressure washer may not have a blade, but that’s no comfort: This is a machine that concentrates water into a stream with 30 to 80 times the force of water from a garden hose, allowing it to slice through any number of materials. You can easily etch a deep groove in a wood deck with that kind of pressure, and your fleshy limbs and digits don’t stand a chance. Lacerations to the hands and fingers are the most common injury, followed by strains and bruises.
A number of people also get injured when they fall from a ladder when using a pressure washer to clean the roof or gutters. According to the CPSC data, the two people who died were using pressure washers indoors and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from the running engine.
How to Stay Safe Using a Pressure Washer
Aside from never using a gas-powered pressure washer indoors, our most important safety tip is to avoid zero-degree nozzles. “No matter how well a model cleans, Consumer Reports does not recommend any pressure washer with a zero-degree setting or nozzle, which condenses the full force of the water into a pinpoint,” says William Wallace, manager of home and safety policy for CR. (Pressure washers with replaceable nozzles have color-coded nozzles—the red nozzle is the zero-degree one. All-in-one nozzles are not color coded.) These pinpoint sprays can cut like a knife. Instead, opt for nozzles with settings of 15, 25, or 40 degrees. For more information, see our pressure washer safety alert.
Other precautions to take:
- Put on protective gear before you start power-washing: Goggles, long pants, and sturdy footwear (no sandals or flip flops) all can help keep you from getting hurt.
- Don’t use a pressure washer while standing on a ladder, because pulling the trigger can cause recoil and throw you off-balance.
- Stay aware of your surroundings to avoid pointing the nozzle toward yourself, other people, or pets.
- Take extra care on wet surfaces, which can quickly get slick and cause you to slip and lose control of the pressure washer.
- If your washer comes with interchangeable spray tips, turn off the machine before swapping one for another to make sure you aren’t blasted by a powerful stream of water. Turn off the engine and press the trigger to drain excess water from the wand before changing tips.
Annual ER visits: 27,800
Deaths: 5 fatalities in 2016 and 2017
There’s a reason chain saws are featured in horror movies—they can inflict horrific damage. You can easily cut yourself with the sharp motorized blades while cutting errant tree branches. In fact, more than 40 percent of serious injuries from chain saws are lacerations, mostly to the arms and legs. Finger amputations account for 6 percent of hospital admissions.
Fortunately, reported deaths from chain saws are low. In one instance, a 55-year-old Tampa man suffered a fatal cut to the neck while using a chain saw to clean up fallen trees after Hurricane Irma in 2017. The other fatalities in the CPSC data included branches falling on the victims as they worked.
How to Stay Safe Using a Chain Saw
Protective gear is key when it comes to using chain saws safely. To avoid getting cut, wear snug-fitting clothing and sturdy work boots, preferably steel-toed. Shield your legs with cut-resistant chaps, your hands with protective gloves, and your head with a helmet with a face shield. All this gear will cost you about $200 but can keep you from far costlier medical bills. While you’re at it, consider using ear protection, because saws typically exceed 85 decibels at ear level, which can cause hearing damage.
When you’re ready to go to work, follow these steps:
- Before you start the saw, check that all its parts are in working order. Keep the cutting chain properly sharpened, tensioned, and oiled. A sharp saw ensures smoother cutting and can help prevent kickback.
- When starting the saw, be sure you and the saw are on solid ground, and grip the saw firmly while pull-starting it; most handles include a spot for securing the saw with one foot while pulling the starter cord.
- Avoid sawing with the tip of the chain and bar, where kickback typically occurs.
- Saw only tree limbs you can reach from the ground. Never saw on a ladder or while holding the saw above your shoulders, because that can easily throw you off-balance.
- If you’re clearing away fallen trees after a storm, treat any downed electrical lines as live, and wait for the utility crew’s okay to proceed.
Other tips to keep in mind: If the tree you want to cut down is larger than 6 inches in diameter, it’s really best to call an arborist. Though trees often fall in the direction they’re leaning, it can be tricky to know for sure, and you don’t want to take any chances.
When the job’s done, turn off the saw and use a bar sheath or carrying case to protect yourself when you’re putting the saw away. Be sure that the engine has stopped and the muffler is cool. For storage in a car or truck, stow the saw in the trunk or cargo area.
For more information on chain saws, check our chain saw ratings and buying guide.
Annual ER visits: 4,500
A portable generator produces power if your electricity goes out in a storm, but it also produces deadly carbon monoxide (CO)—the top cause of generator-related deaths. Take the case of three Wisconsin friends, ages 23 to 30, who died in a home from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2017 after using a generator indoors to power their electricity.
“Gas generators release levels of CO that are exponentially higher than an idling car, and they should never be operated in an enclosed space,” says CR’s Wallace. High concentrations of CO can kill in a matter of minutes or leave victims with lasting injuries, such as brain damage.
You could end up in the ER for reasons other than CO poisoning, too: You could suffer electric shock from plugging an extension cord into the machine if water has collected inside or receive burns from getting splashed by gas while trying to refuel a generator before it has completely cooled.
How to Stay Safe Using a Generator
Simple precautions to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:
- Never, ever use a generator anywhere inside your home—including the basement or garage.
- Keep your generator at least 20 feet from the house and—this is critical—aim the engine exhaust away from windows and doors. Recent testing at CR found that the direction the exhaust is pointed is one of the biggest factors contributing to carbon monoxide buildup, even more so than distance or wind speed or direction. “As an extra layer of safety, when it’s running keep a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector where you are,” says Wallace.
- Keep your generator dry to reduce the chance of getting shocked when you plug in an electric cord. Tents designed for generators keep them protected from moisture and well-ventilated so that dangerous levels of CO don’t collect.
- Consider getting an electrician to install a transfer switch that connects the generator to your circuit panel, which lets you power hardwired appliances and mechanical equipment, such as your water heater, without the risk of using extension cords. Skipping it could endanger utility workers, cause appliances to fry, or damage the generator itself. For a generator rated 5,000 watts or higher, you can expect to pay $500 to $900 to have a transfer switch installed.
- In an emergency, if you must use the outlets on the generator to power your appliances, plug them into a high-gauge extension cord plugged directly into the generator. “Use the heaviest gauge extension cord: We recommend 12-gauge,” says Dave Trezza, who oversees our generator tests.
- To avoid burns, turn off a gas-powered generator before refueling, and let it cool. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts can ignite or cause burns.