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Winter 2023

Are You Safe in your Garden?

by David George

Joie Spinelli
Joie Spinelli
Safe practices in the garden have always been a key focus of the UC Master Gardener Program. Preventing serious injuries to our volunteers involves many hours of training, tool sharpening, and using equipment properly. No one in our program knows more about safety issues than experienced Master Gardener, Joie Spinelli.

Throughout his career, Joie was involved in safety education and has been a safe practices trainer in our demonstration gardens ever since he received his certification in 2016. However, he and others continue to sustain injuries. Why is this? I caught up with Joie last week to discuss the safety challenges all gardeners face and received great recommendations for avoiding injuries.

Joie, can you summarize your safety roles prior to applying to be a Master Gardener?
“Sure. I worked for Pacific Bell (now AT&T) for 16 years in the Tahoe City area of the Sierra mountains. Regardless of whether we were working on or around utility poles, the phone company required all employees who worked outside to complete extensive annual safe practices training and annual safe driving education. I spent quite a bit of time working with and around heavy equipment which is always risky. And then there was working in the rain, snow, and ice! More recently, I worked at Blackhawk Country Club for 27 years on the beverage side of their operation, lifting heavy cartons and crates. I also served as a safety instructor for their CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program and forklift safety.”

What are some common but dangerous garden situations?
“The most common injuries are to the back as a result from bending over too far (never more than a 30-degree angle) or carrying too-heavy loads. Injury can also result from using saws, axes, or hatchets in an unsafe manner or when they are not sharp. Before using any tools, including shovels and hand tools, they should be sharpened and then used properly. Then there are slips and falls from step or extension ladders. When you hit it at full speed, the ground is pretty hard. One of the most serious risks is to your eyesight from flying debris or sprays if you’re not wearing safety goggles.”

What safety best practices do you normally teach your fellow gardeners?
“Try to do most of your work with your plantings at waist height, either at a working table or in an elevated raised bed. That minimizes stooping and bending that injures backs. Keep the use of ladders to a minimum by pruning your fruit trees low so tops are within arm’s reach. Ladders should not be used on uneven or mushy ground; they are actually ‘verboten’ (forbidden) in our demonstration gardens. And don't forget to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated during hot days. Dehydration can creep up on you and affect your decision-making. Wear good-fitting gloves when working with soil or tools (but not with shredders!), and wear protective glasses when stuff is flying around you. Avoid using poisons because there is always a better way.”

Do you have any final advice for our readers?
“Well, all gardeners should have zero tolerance for accidents and injuries. Rely on help and the right equipment for the job, such as wheelbarrows and carts for heavy hauling. Sharpen, clean, and use hand tools correctly and always have a first aid kit nearby for the inevitable blisters, scrapes, and splinters. I also want to give credit to our knowledgeable compost/shredder team, which includes Bob Archer, Jerry Anderson, Steve Danziger, Tim McClintock, and Keith Silva who assist with keeping our demonstration gardens safe.

Thanks, Joie for some great advice for avoiding injuries in our gardens. I’ll keep my blades sharpened, stay off ladders, and wear gloves and eye protection. Gardening should be fun AND safe!

Bob Archer, Steve Danziger, and Jerry Anderson operating the chipper
Bob Archer, Steve Danziger, and Jerry Anderson operating the chipper

David George and Joie Spinelli are UC Master Gardeners of Contra Costa County
Photo credits: UCANR.edu and Master Gardeners of Contra Costa County