Safety is a constant priority when maintaining athletic fields, but most often the emphasis is on the safety of the players who will be using those fields. What shouldn’t be overlooked is the safety of the crews carrying out the maintenance work. Sports field maintenance isn’t a desk job, it’s a demanding, physical occupation. Accidents can happen, but there are basic steps to take to train employees about safety and minimize injuries.

“Safety for us is an everyday thing,” says Ryan Newman, director of athletic grounds at the University of Colorado. There, employees working on sports facilities must follow university-wide guidelines. For example, training is provided and employees must be certified before operating equipment such as forklifts and skid steers.

Sometimes even minor situations can fall under the school’s umbrella of safety training. For instance, because a small amount of mineral spirits are used to clean the athletic field paint machine each winter, the athletic grounds department is technically deemed as a “hazardous waste generator” by the school. “We took a class on hazardous waste, and we take a refresher course every year on that,” explains Newman.

Other safety classes are offered on topics such as working in confined spaces. In most cases, these are general trainings on a given topic and not aimed specifically at situations encountered when caring for athletic fields, he says.

Specific to maintaining the sports fields, Newman says, “The biggest thing for us is probably the proper operation of equipment. We try to make sure that everybody knows how to safely operate the piece of equipment they are on. … That knowledge can prevent a lot of little accidents.” He often provides specific reminders and pointers to individual employees. “I try to give my guys a head’s up because I’ve probably operated each piece of equipment myself. I try to tell them to be careful because this or that might happen, or tell them to watch particular parts,” Newman explains. He adds that all new employees are carefully supervised until they feel comfortable operating any equipment they’ll need to use.

Newman also emphasizes that proper maintenance of grounds- keeping equipment goes a long way towards ensuring safety: “There are many moving parts on a lot of the machinery, so we have to always be sure the equipment is running the way it’s supposed to and that all the guards are in place. If that’s not the case, we need to get the equipment to a point where it’s safe to operate.”

Given that sports field management is most often an outdoors job, there are also environmental considerations. While there are no formal procedures at the university for safely working when temperatures rise, Newman says there are constant reminders to employees to drink plenty of fluids. “We tell them to find some shade if they’re not feeling well and to take it easy and to wear sunscreen,” adds Newman.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is another critical part of working safely. “Eye protection and ear protection are probably the areas we emphasize the most,” states Newman. “When we’re using string trimmers, employees must wear eye protection and ear protection. And when we’re using any kind of equipment we use ear protection.”

PPE is also an important safety precaution taken at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, says Peter Ashe, sports turf manager. “Everything from proper gloves and steel-toed boots to sunglasses,” he summarizes.

All employees at the school, including those who maintain the sports fields, are state employees of North Carolina. “We’re part of facilities operations, so along with the plumbers and carpenters and mechanics and so on, we all receive about 16 hours of training per year, including safety training,” says Ashe, noting that the university has its own safety department. “Safety is emphasized on a very frequent basis, and is celebrated in the fact that we have a Safety Day here every year for all employees. We go through a half-day safety training and celebrate with a lunch afterwards. It really is important to the university that we operate safely.”

Part of that daylong devotion to safety, conducted a few weeks after graduation each year, is a review of accident records from the past year. This helps employees to understand how and why accidents have occurred in order to prevent future recurrences.

The results of these trainings and emphasis on safety are evident within the facilities operations department at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. “We recently broke a record of 92 days without an injury, and that’s an all-time record,” says Ashe. “As a group of workers, our goal is an entire year without an injury.”

The staff that maintains the athletic fields has an even longer streak going. “We have about two or three years in a row going where there have been no accidents or near misses. We’re a pretty safe group as a rule,” he explains. “We might have a splinter or a blister, but nothing that needs to be reported.”

Ashe says there are things from a managerial standpoint that can be done to help keep employees safe. For example, during hot periods, work is scheduled so that the most demanding jobs are done early, beginning at 6 a.m., so that by the time the heat really hits employees can focus on less strenuous work. In addition, he has installed canopies on all tractors and mowers to help protect operators from the direct sun. “And we’re provided with Gatorade to help keep everyone hydrated,” Ashe adds.

Each employee in the athletic grounds department has graduated from a 10-hour OSHA workshop, and Ashe says that experience has helped to “indoctrinate” everyone into a safety mindset: “That means being careful when mowing slopes. We’re careful in the way we lift things. I’m fortunate to have a talented group of skilled workers, and they really watch themselves to do things the right way.”

When it comes to safety, training is critical. “Frequent, brief trainings can be very effective, especially if employees themselves are included in the planning and delivery of the training,” says Mitch Ricketts, health, safety and environmental quality coordinator with Kansas State University Research & Extension.

Ricketts advises keeping trainings short and to the point: “Brevity is important because long sessions can overwhelm workers with too much information.” He also recommends involving workers in planning training sessions, thereby giving them a chance to pinpoint safety issues that they have spotted or are concerned about. “Also, they will be more interested if they have a say in the content of the training,” Ricketts adds.

When considering what topics to cover in trainings, Ricketts, who has made worker safety presentations in the past to the Sports Turf Managers Association, says that there are several core areas to focus on when promoting safety for groundskeepers:

  • operating mowers, tractors and other machinery so as to avoid overturns, run overs and striking foreign materials with the blades;
  • wearing protective gloves, washing hands and following label directions when using pesticides;
  • wearing a hat and long sleeves/pants or sunscreen to avoid the risk of skin cancer;
  • being careful with chain saws and falling limbs when involved in tree work;
  • being careful to avoid fires with gasoline; and
  • drinking at least a quart of water per hour during hot weather to avoid heat illness.

Each sports facility and maintenance operation may have its own special safety considerations, so trainings can be customized as needed.

While trainings can be something employees dread, Ricketts says it’s possible to devise safety trainings that actually boost morale. “Having experienced workers serve as trainers gives them a chance to share their expertise and increases the likelihood they will take pride in working safely, while also encouraging a culture of safety for the entire organization,” he notes.

That said, Ricketts emphasizes that trainings should provide information not only for new hires, but also for those who have been on the job for years and might have a tendency to get complacent: “I recommend frequent trainings for all workers; and again, I recommend getting employees involved in planning and presenting the training so it will have more personal meaning for them.”

Of course, safety doesn’t end with trainings. Constant follow-up is required to ensure that proper practices are being followed. Ricketts says that offering incentives to employees can be an effective tool for promoting safety, but cautions that workers should only be rewarded for safe behavior, not simply for working accident-free. “The problem with rewarding workers for not having injuries is that workers often hide their injuries so they’ll qualify for the rewards,” he explains. “In contrast, giving workers bonuses, time off or recognition for following safe procedures, serving on safety committees, submitting safety ideas, etc., can be an effective way to get workers engaged in injury prevention while avoiding any secrecy about their injuries.”