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Close Encounters of the Gardening Kind

It´s hard to believe but gardening can be a hazardous hobby.

I recently tradedclose call” experiences with fellow gardeners and realized we all need to be more careful when working outside. In addition to bouts of poison oak, bad sunburns, and strained backs, there were other more serious stories of close calls caused by preoccupation with accomplishing the gardening task and inadequate attention to the risks involved.

Some of the stories included: backing into the deep end of the swimming pool while using an electric leaf blower; falling through a glass table while pruning a branch that was just out of reach; sliding down a slippery leaf-covered slope, being unable to crawl back up again and needing to be pulled up by a rope; dislodging a boulder that charged downslope like a bull; and accidentally cutting off the heads of three rattle snakes with a weed-whacker on the same afternoon. Fortunately we all lived to laugh at ourselves but there were dire reports of chain saw incidents, including one which came within 1/8th inch of hitting tendons and an artery. We´ve all heard of other accidents which were fatal.

According to recent Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics, accidents with lawn and garden tools cause over 400,000 trips per year to the emergency room. Most of the accidents result from human error rather than product malfunction. Lawn mowers (both the riding and walking kind), chainsaws and weed-eaters cause the most injuries so special care is necessary when using them. Buy UL rated products, know how to use them, follow the operating instructions provided in the manual, wear protective clothing and preplan your activity to reduce the chance of injury.

When using lawn mowers and weed-eaters, remove any stones or other debris that could go flying. Make certain children and pets cannot enter the work area. Avoid wearing loose fitting clothing and jewelry that could get caught in the equipment. Wear goggles, since many of these accidents affect the eyes. It is also important to wear appropriate footgear. If there are sharp blades involved, that means boots (never sandals—remember the rattlesnakes)!

If using a chainsaw, never work alone and always carefully determine if the job can be done safely or requires a skilled professional. Experience, proper equipment, and protective clothing are essential to avoid accidents. Chainsaws with a reduced kickback bar, low kickback chain, chain brake, commercially sharpened chains and properly adjusted carburetor will have less kickback, the leading cause of most accidents, especially when sawing hard woods like manzanita.

For all electrical equipment use a plug with a GFI or get a portable one to plug it into and avoid use in wet conditions. For gas-operated equipment, wait until the equipment cools down before refilling it with gas.

But other garden related close calls are subtle—such as casual use of pesticides and herbicides. Some over exposure may result in an acute illness; some symptoms may be more chronic or long term and difficult to associate with pesticide use. The best way to avoid risk is to follow the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which minimize chemical use and rely on less toxic methods for pest control such as oil sprays, insecticidal soap, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and Pyrethrums. For more information go to www.ipm.ucdavis.edu. Homeowners should never use chemicals labeledDanger Poison” which means that as little as a taste to one teaspoonful could be lethal.

Always use the least toxic chemical that will do the job and specifically follow the precautionary statements on the label. These specify the kind of protective clothing required and whether the pesticide is corrosive, flammable or explosive. The label also contains directions for use and first aid measures to be followed in case of over exposure. Accidents are most likely when mixing ingredients, storing, and disposing of containers and equipment so those directions should be followed explicitly, remembering that the ingredients are harmful and potentially fatal to human and animal life, and harmful to the environment unless used carefully and responsibly.

Even for those not using herbicides and pesticides or electric or power equipment, here are some tips to consider for minimizing the kind of “close calls” mentioned earlier.

*Work moving forward, not backward. In addition to the swimming pool, there may be stumps or other tripping hazards.

*Keep your mind focused on the task. This is not the time for multi-tasking or being distracted. Preplan and anticipate the likely result before any action is taken. For example never prune tree limbs over your head and get out of the way of boulders that are going to roll down hill.

*Wear clothing (including shoes, hats/helmets and protective eye and ear gear) that provides maximum protection for the task. Long sleeves and pants are always advisable when working outside. In addition to providing protection in case of accidents, they protect against mosquitoes and West Vile virus, ticks and Lyme disease, bad sunburns and poison oak, snakes, spider and bug bites.

After sharing stories of our close calls, my gardening friends and I vowed to slow down, to keep our minds focused on the job, to do only that which we know how to do, to take fewer chances and to do whatever is necessary to be safe in the garden. We enjoy gardening too much to do otherwise.

Marlys Bell is an avid gardener who in not admitting which ones of these close calls actually happened to her.