Safety Tips for Backhoe Operation

Unfortunately, the functionality and size that makes loader and backhoes an asset for so many tasks can also lead to accidents. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), backhoe injuries can occur due to backhoe movement, swinging excavator arms, rollover accidents, and contact with high voltage lines. As with all heavy equipment, accident prevention begins with operator and worker training, a pre-work walk-around, solid lock-out or tag-out procedures, maintenance best practices, and awareness of the machine operation.

Always Perform a Pre-Work Walkaround

Before beginning the walkaround of a backhoe, read the owner’s manual and use a checklist as a reference point for inspection. In addition, review the signals used to communicate between the operator and other workers. The checklist should include engine, coolant, and hydraulic fluid levels; the engine compartment; transmission; the integrity of bolts, connectors, welds, and pins; brakes; hydraulic hoses; safety devices and guards; roll-over protection; visibility, lighting, and alarms; and tires.

When checking each of these items, note any possible problems. If any component or system of the backhoe exhibits signs of possible failure, complete the necessary information for a “Do Not Use” tag and attach the tag to the backhoe. For example, a pre-work inspection may disclose that the stabilizer arms and pads have become damaged and require repair before work can begin.

When inspecting the loader on a backhoe, check for damage at the lift arms. The arm hinges should have the proper lubrication and should not show signs of wear. Always inspect the hydraulic cylinders that raise and lower the loader or bucket for signs of bending or damage and the hydraulic hoses for any damage or leaks. Carefully check the entire backhoe for any worn hinge pins, cracked welds, and damaged bolts. Verify that the backhoe controls work smoothly.

The walkaround before loader or backhoe operation also needs to consider the work area. Because an operator may not see someone entering the swing area, use ropes or barriers to keep workers clear of the full swing area of the backhoe. The backhoe stabilizers and loader bucket may bounce and injure workers standing within the danger zone as the backhoe begins excavation.

Inspection of the work area should also consider excavation hazards. Contacting the relevant utility and service companies will disclose the presence of buried service lines, water and sewage pipes, or other obstructions. Operators should also demonstrate care when working near trenches or excavated areas. Because the swinging movement of the backhoe increases the ground pressure from the stabilizer pad, the stabilizers should remain at least two feet from the edge of the trench or excavation. Placing the stabilizer pads too close to an excavation may cause a collapse or a rollover. When moving a loader or backhoe, maintain the machine parallel to the trench or excavation wall.

Pay Attention to Stability

A loader or backhoe setting on level ground with the backhoe stowed behind the machine has a center of gravity located between the front and rear wheels. Driving the backhoe forward translates into forward driving torque that transfers weight from the front wheels to the back wheels. As the weight transfers to the back wheels, traction for the front wheels and the ability to steer the machine decrease. When the opposite occurs, the machine reverses and weight shifts to the front, so the back tires may spin. To maintain safety, any acceleration of the loader or backhoe should occur slowly.

Accordingly, swinging the backhoe boom to the side causes the center of gravity to shift to that side. A full bucket of material results in an even greater shift for the center of gravity. In turn, the stabilizer pads have greater ground pressure. Extreme movements of the backhoe with a loaded bucket can push the load beyond the reach of the stabilizers or cause the ground beneath the stabilizer pad to sink. Both results can cause the machine to tip-over.

While lifting a full loader bucket allows the center of gravity to rise, moving the bucket to one side or the other shifts the center of gravity to the downhill of the slope and sets the stage for a tip-over. Loader or backhoe owner’s manuals include load capacity charts that specify the amount of load that a backhoe can carry when operating at the back of the machine and to the side of the machine. Because of the shift to the center of gravity, the manuals always show lighter loads for side-to-side operation.