Don’t dig dangerously
By Mike Hale
A power earth auger accomplishes its work beneath the ground, but the most important aspect of any project—making sure everything is safe for the operator and other crew members—starts before the machine’s point ever pierces the surface.
It sounds like common sense, but keeping safety top of mind before starting any job is crucial to avoiding injuries, some of which can be serious. There are potential hazards for any digging job, and while most machines are designed with safety in mind, it’s always a good idea to review best practices and stay up to date with industry guidelines to protect everyone on the jobsite.
It’s all in the call
Knowing the worksite and preparing accordingly is a crucial first step before beginning any digging project. Hazards may lurk just a few feet below the surface, where anything from utility lines to underground sprinklers, sewer pipes to transmission cables can be hiding. Inadvertently hitting any of them can cause a big mess, create a costly problem and, in the worst cases, cause serious injuries. Buried gas lines or power lines are the most dangerous, with the potential for electrocution, fire, severe burns or even fatalities.
Always call at least 48 hours prior to digging to have underground utilities marked. No exceptions, no excuses. When there are underground obstacles, allow an adequate amount of space around them. The general rule of thumb is a radius of two to three feet around a marked area.
After the site has been prepped, with the underground lines marked, it’s time to ready yourself and the machine for safe and effective digging.
Check yourself, check your machine
Operators need to wear appropriate personal protective gear and follow basic dress code practices when operating a power earth auger. Instead of sandals, opt for work boots or quality athletic shoes. Avoid loose clothing and hanging shoelaces that could get caught in the auger. To protect against flying dirt and debris, wear safety goggles and work gloves whenever the unit is running.
Operators also should be familiar with the owner’s manual prior to operating a power earth auger. Even if you’re accustomed to operating one, different brands have different safety features, and practices and procedures can vary from model to model.
Once you’ve read the owner’s manual, thoroughly inspect the auger for repairs or maintenance needs and to ensure all the necessary parts and pieces are intact. First, identify all instruction and warning labels and be sure they’re properly affixed to the unit. Anyone operating the machine must understand and be able to easily recognize these labels, which should be outlined and explained in the owner’s manual. Be sure all kill switches and wires are undamaged, properly connected and functioning. To ensure the throttle is working properly, start the engine and let it run for a few seconds before releasing the throttle. If the engine is functioning correctly, it will return to idle.
Next, check gearboxes and tighten loose bolts. Inspect both the leg pad and handle grips for tears and replace them if necessary. Be sure there are no cracks or other damage to handles or the gearbox housing.
Misalignment of the point and blades might cause the auger to vibrate excessively or “walk” during use, so make sure they are tight and secure. Be aware of the sharp edges so you don’t get cut. If you’re installing these for the first time, follow the instructions outlined in the owner’s manual.
If the engine has a torque tube, a safety feature that protects the operator by absorbing dangerous kickbacks, properly connect and secure it. The procedure might vary slightly from one model to another, so follow the steps as outlined in the owner’s manual.
On models that have an engine mounted on a separate, wheeled chassis, it’s important to check the tire pressure. If there’s a tire blowout or the unit isn’t level during transport, it can tip over. That’s both a safety and environmental hazard you want to avoid.
Finally, check all the machine’s fluids and change or refill if necessary. Remember that trying to change or refill fluids when the machine is hot could result in serious injuries from accidentally touching a hot engine or hydraulic power deck. It’s best to change or refill fluids before you even start a job. If you have to do it mid-project, let the auger cool completely first.
With the pre-operation checklist addressed, safety is now in the operator’s or owner’s hands.
Do it right
Now that you’ve gone through all the machine and operator safety precautions, it’s important to also remember the safety of others. Always ensure bystanders are at least 10 feet away before starting the auger.
Once the auger is running, position it perpendicular to the ground for the best possible control and optimal results. For even greater control, adjust the downward pressure based on the soil conditions. If the soil is soft, ease up slightly. If the ground is harder, apply a little more pressure, but not so much that rotation slows or stops.
The most important tip to remember when using an earth auger is a variation of the common saying, “Lift with your legs, not with your back.” With an earth auger, all the power should come from the legs to avoid serious back strain and injury.
Once you’ve reached the desired depth, there’s a proper procedure for safely removing the auger from the ground. Because it spins at such a high speed, never remove an auger from the ground completely while it’s still running. The force from the revolution can easily cause loss of control, even for an experienced operator. When retracting the auger, release the throttle control and allow the auger to come to a complete stop. Once the auger has stopped turning, it can safely be removed from the hole.
If the auger hits a tree root or unusually hard piece of earth and gets stuck, turn off the machine and disconnect the handle from the auger. Turn the auger counterclockwise to free the unit. In tougher soils, it might be necessary to use a pipe wrench and, if you still can’t dislodge it, you might have to dig the auger out.
Certain applications call for a greater depth than the auger can reach, so many manufacturers offer extensions. When the auger reaches its maximum depth, it’s typically a fast and simple process to attach an extension, but don’t forget to keep safety in mind when doing so. Once the lead auger has reached its maximum depth, stop the power unit. Disconnect the drive adaptor from the auger that is in the ground and connect the extension to it as specified in the owner’s manual.
Reconnect the power unit and drive adaptor to the top of the extension and continue to dig. When the desired depth is reached, stop the unit, disconnect the drive adaptor from the extension and remove it from the hole. It may be necessary to use an auger fork, a tool that keeps the auger from falling in the hole, before you reconnect the machine. Reconnect the power unit and repeat the process to remove the auger.
Finally, for first-time and newer operators, slow and steady is the key to safely digging a hole with an earth auger. Running it at a slightly slower speed than typical will help newer users gain comfort and control and, as a result, reduce the likelihood of injuries.
Safety by design
Some machines feature safeguards to prevent potential hazards before they become full-fledged issues. One-man power auger designs vary depending on the manufacturer and specific model, but you should look for a few common features that enhance safe operation.
Even in well-ventilated areas, carbon monoxide poisoning can be a serious threat. It can be minimized, however, based on how the engine is mounted on the power auger. There are two typical designs for the engine mount: handle-mounted and chassis-mounted. As the name implies, the engine on a handle-mounted unit is right on the handle, which means the operator is constantly breathing in potentially harmful exhaust. A chassis-mounted unit, on the other hand, has the engine on a wheeled chassis that sits back a few feet from the operation point to keep the operator away from emissions.
Another advantage of certain chassis-mounted units is that they incorporate steel torque tubes that transfer digging torque from the drill head to the engine carriage to protect operators from dangerous kickback. This significantly minimizes the potential for finger, hand and arm injuries. As an added benefit it makes the machine easier to operate, which, in turn, reduces fatigue and physical stress that can lead to back problems and muscle strains.
A pressure relief valve, a valuable safety feature found on some hydraulic-powered units, engages if the auger becomes overworked and the drill reaches a certain hydraulic pressure. This automatically stops the auger’s rotation and halts the drill before it reaches a dangerous overload point. In addition to increasing safety for the operator, it also prevents damage to the machine.
Power earth augers that are not hydraulically powered, often called mechanical units, also are built with unique safety features. The centrifugal clutch is a perfect example. If the auger encounters an object beneath the surface or if it’s overloaded, the clutch automatically slips to protect the operator from serious injury.
The advanced, thoughtful designs of power earth augers help take the guesswork out of safe operation and make it simple for even first-time users. But safety doesn’t begin or end with the machine, but with the owner and operator. With a strong commitment to safety, everyone can go home at the end of the day with all fingers, toes and backs intact.
Mike Hale is sales manager for Little Beaver Inc.