Shove it!

It’s no surprise most workplace injuries in the landscape construction and maintenance industry are based on incorrect use of tools and equipment resulting in overexertion, body strains and muscle and ligament injuries. John Gabriele points out there are many instances where the safest and most efficient option is with hand tools.

Hand tools are very versatile, and although their use may be limited in some circumstances, their importance on the job can be critical. Selection of the correct quality hand tools, and more importantly their appropriate use, can minimise the potential for injury.

What makes a well-designed hand tool?

The answer is in ergonomics, which, based on the Webster dictionary definition, is an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.

Unfortunately, with the introduction of mass-produced hand tools, not all tools have been produced equally when it comes to ergonomics. Mass-produced hand tools have not been designed to meet the physical requirements of every individual, so it’s crucial to select hand tools according to individual needs and physical characteristics and to ensure correct technique is applied in their use.

To be called ‘ergonomic’, a tool should be designed to reduce the physical effort required from the person using it. Good ergonomic design takes into consideration the following factors:
• Physical characteristics and limitations of operators
• Biomechanics (how your body works) – structure, strength, and mobility
• Fatigue and manual dexterity, and
• Task-related characteristics and work requirements.

Natural selection

Every landscaper has served an apprenticeship on the digging tools and would be aware of grinding hours on a shovel.

The handles or shafts of shovels are usually long to provide leverage when digging, but can also be relatively short, particularly on broad-mouth shovels used for moving bulk materials such as sand or gravel. The length of the shaft is important to ensure correct leverage can be achieved. Ergonomic design of shafts with curved handles helps the operator use the weight of their body rather than relying on back and arm strength – a downside with straight-shaft shovels – and the type of materials shafts and handles are constructed from is as varied as the tools themselves. Traditional wooden shafts and handles are constructed from spotted gum or other hardwood timbers. These types of tools will require additional maintenance to keep them in good working order, whereas composite materials, such as fibreglass, metal or alloy handles, are relatively maintenance-free.

Weight and cost of the tool will also be dependent on the material it is constructed from. The total weight of a shovel or other digging tools will determine the amount of effort required to use the tool effectively. This weight is referred to as ‘unproductive weight’, and if this can be reduced, the efficiency of the task can be increased through less muscular effort.

Proper technique is critical to reducing the risk of injury. Image: Pavel Kašák/


Spades are another versatile tool no selfrespecting contractor should be without.

Spades, unlike shovels, have a relatively flat blade with straight edges, and the blade is usually in line with the shaft and not angled forward. It’s this feature that makes all the difference. The design makes it efficient in cutting through sods and for slicing straight edges in trenches or holes and edging garden beds.

The shafts of spades are usually short with a DY-handle or T-handle, but there’s also an O-handle on the market which gives more options on how the tool is held and provides better ergonomics. There is also a range of long-handled spades which can make light work of digging planting holes, particularly for smaller size stock in 150mm-200mm containers. The longer shaft eliminates the need for bending, thereby making the tool even more ergonomically efficient.

Traditional wooden shafts and handles are constructed from spotted gum or other hardwood timbers. Image: sushytska/

Operational matters

Even with the most expensive and wellldesigned ergonomic maintenance tools, there is still a risk of workplace injury if a team has not been adequately trained in their correct use. Proper technique is critical to reducing the risk of injury. To minimise these risks the following points should be considered when using any digging tools:
• Select the correct tool for the job at hand
• Round-bladed shovels are for moving fine materials such as sand and soils
• Square-mouth shovels are for coarse materials
• Use smaller-width shovels to reduce the weight of materials being lifted
• Break down the task by alternating between tasks every 15 minutes to reduce fatigue and muscle strain
• Move your feet and turn your entire body when digging or moving bulk materials,
• Rather than twisting the body, alternate between shovelling on the left and right side of the body
• Avoid large forward bending, stretching limbs and uncontrolled motions
• Ensure minimal back bend and maximise knee bend
• Use a repetitive technique rather than erratic movements
• Place wheelbarrows close to the work face to reduce the throw distance to no more than 1.3m, and
• Where practicable, use mechanical aids such as trenchers or backhoes to do the digging.

Digging deeper

Shovelling and digging tasks are hard work and require a strategic approach to ensure both efficiency and safety. The average rate of shovelling is around 15 scoops per minute, but at that rate fatigue will set in quickly. It is therefore recommended there should be a 15-minute break from continuous shovelling every 15 minutes. This is of course dependent on the prevailing climatic conditions. Factors like extreme heat, extreme cold or wind will reduce the shovelling rate

The rate-per-minute will also be affected by the type of material being moved, the weight of each shovel load, and the ease with which the shovel or digging implement can be inserted into the load.

The weight of each load is also a factor to consider and should be adjusted according to the shovelling rate.

The total weight of a shovel-plus-load should not exceed between 6.5kg where a shovel rate of 15 scoops per minute is required.

The total weight of a shovel-plus-load should not exceed between 6.5kg where a shovel rate of 15 scoops per minute is required. Image: Milan/

Maintaining an edge

As with all tools, a little maintenance will go a long way to ensure a safe working life and improve performance. Preventative maintenance on all tools provides many benefits. Before and after each use, inspect the shovel for any signs of damage. Check the blade for cracks, chips, or other signs of wear and tear and replace any worn parts immediately.

Here’s a few tips to help keep shovels in good shape:
• Prevent rust and corrosion by cleaning and drying shovel heads after each use and occasionally oiling or greasing the blade. Hose off any debris and use a soft brush to remove any remaining stubborn dirt
• Lightly sand wooden handles to remove any possible splinters, and wipe over shafts, handles and blades with a light oil. Linseed oil is perfect for the job to prevent rust and to condition timber handles to reduce splitting. Simply wipe tools over with an oil-soaked rag and remove any excess oil with a dry cloth, and
• Improve performance by sharpening the cutting edge of the blade with a sharpening stone or angle grinder.

Can you dig it?

Shovelling and digging are par for the course as a landscape contractor, but complacency and poor technique can make this relatively simple and common day-to-day task a major contributor to workplace injuries. Take the time to select the best-designed tools for the task, ensure staff are appropriately trained in the correct technique for safe and efficient use of the tools, and before long your crew will be moving mountains.

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