May 6, 2018, was one of those gorgeous spring days perfectly suited for outdoor chores.
Lisa Barnett and her husband, Mathew, had both taken the day off to work on their property in Louisa County. She was driving their zero-turn commercial riding mower, the kind with differential steering controlled by two handles designed to cut closely around obstacles.
She was almost finished mowing, but the power take-off switch was not communicating with the pulley and belt, preventing the mower blades from spinning correctly.
Barnett was focused on finishing the task.
“I was in a hurry and wanted to help it along,” she said. “I kept engaging and then disengaging the switch. But in my haste to hurry it up, I didn’t disengage, and when I reached down to pull on the pulley, it ripped my hand right through it.”
A deep laceration zig-zagged through her left hand, severing a ligament. She remained calm and drove back toward the house, steering with her right hand and left elbow.
“We jumped in the car, and off to the emergency room we went,” Barnett said.
Fifteen stitches and a pin held her hand together until she had orthopedic surgery. The scars healed nicely, but the awful memory is still visceral.
“I have fairly decent usage of that hand, but I can’t make a complete fist or pick things up with it, and it gets really cold in the wintertime,” Barnett said. “But I was very fortunate to keep my fingers. I believe if I had taken the brunt a little higher where the bones are smaller, I may have lost part, or both of, my fingers.”
The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates more than 37,000 Americans suffer a power mower-related injury each year, resulting in about 90 deaths.
“Unfortunately, lawn mower and bush hog injuries are frequent occurrences throughout the spring and summer months,” said Dr. Eric Kramer, a Rockingham County emergency physician.
He said mowing accidents tend to result in two categories of injury: lacerations and amputations, or blunt trauma. Kramer said common injuries are a result of people attempting to hand-clear debris while the mower’s engine is still running.
Blunt-trauma injuries occur when mowers and tractors upend while the rider is moving along a steep gradient, pinning them to the ground.
“Given the substantial weight of the machinery, patients sustain an array of physical damage ranging from severe arm and leg crush injuries, to more significant chest and abdominal trauma,” Kramer said. “This often necessitates rapid transfer to a trauma center.”
Riding with Grandpa on the mower also presents hazards, especially to the children.
An estimated 9,400 children are injured by lawn mowers every year in the U.S., especially in rural areas, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Lawn mowers are responsible for 12% to 19% of traumatic amputations among kids. Dana Fisher, chairman of Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s Safety Advisory Committee, advised against allowing children or pets to be nearby while mowing.
“Lawn mowers are powerful and potentially dangerous machines that are designed for one operator,” Fisher explained. “Adding an additional child rider makes it harder for the operator to control the machine and could lead to the child falling off and being seriously injured.”