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Equipment Hub: The lowly (but oh so necessary) hand tool

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 August 2019

Often when we think about putting time into proper operation, maintenance and tool safety, our thoughts turn to the expensive power tools at our disposal. While it certainly makes sense to take care of and take care with our powered friends, our hand tools need the same respect and care for optimal performance.

In fact, one of my favourite college professors used to share that the first thing he looked for when visiting a farm was the presence of hand tools and signs of their use and care.



“There are too many jobs on the farm that cannot be done from a tractor seat,” he would say. A well-used broom and scoop are a sign of a manager who practices attention to detail.

I thought about this article topic recently while digging holes for a new shed on the farm.

While a shovel and posthole digger don’t have a grease fitting, it certainly made the job easier in our heavy clay subsoil because the blades of my buddies were sharp, clean and had just a hint of lubricant applied before their application to the task.

Think about your digging tools as not unlike a turning plow; a plow with fresh bottoms and a scoured moldboard not only does a better job, it does it with more power efficiency as well.

Likewise, using a posthole digger and not having to stop and clear any soil sticking between the blades made my task easier. Since I am not 27 years old anymore, being able to make more efficient use of the energy I have is a major plus.


Energy aside, safety and injury prevention should be a consideration of using hand tools. According to a team of extension specialists at Virginia Tech, led by Bobby Grisso, hand tool safety should be implemented in any farming or landscaping operation and carry over into our personal home use as well.

Many hand tools, such as rakes, shovels and pruners, are used widely in our farming operations.

While these non-powered tools are not known to cause major injuries, they have the potential for injuries that may require absence from work or medical assistance when they are used improperly.

Examples of such injuries may include bruises, cuts, sprains, back problems and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported approximately 205,000 wrist, hand and finger injuries that required an absence from work in 2006. The rate of these injuries in all private industries is approximately 29.6 incidences per 10,000 full-time workers.

Similar information published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2012 shows more than 28,000 cases nationwide receiving hospital treatment for injuries sustained from the use of hand tools.


A large majority of these injuries can be avoided with proper selection and maintenance of tools and careful use.

The overall goal of this training guide is to familiarize users with different hand tools used in lawn care and how to use them safely to minimize the number of injuries.

It should go without saying you should not use hand tools under the influence of alcohol or drugs or when fatigued.

Some general safety rules for hand tool use would include selecting the right tool for the job. Obviously, a round-pointed shovel was better suited to digging the holes I needed than a square-pointed shovel or grain scoop.

As the hole deepened, changing over a digging bar and posthole digger saved time and energy by making it easier to reach into the hole to extract materials.

Also, you should select tools to match the strength and size of the user. Let me just say: Lighter isn’t always better.

One lesson I learned as a young worker in my parents’ tobacco patches was that a light hoe might be easy to carry to the field, but a heavier hoe made weeding between the plants easier.

The weight of the hoe helped move it through the soil without as much effort from a young “superintendent.”

The next safety tip requires practice: Maintain proper posture when using hand tools. Body stretching and twisting while working may result in muscle and back problems.

Bad habits can become muscle memory just as proper usage. You may have to research proper techniques and practice these techniques so they become second nature.

Also, please use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as goggles, gloves, appropriate clothing and steel-toed shoes when using hand tools to minimize the number of injuries.

It is interesting how dropping treated 2x8s on your toes can reinforce the need for steel-toed boots.

Maintaining and storing tools properly (sharpening the blade periodically, oil coating to prevent rusting and lubricating, and replacing broken or worn-out parts) can assist tool safety. Prior to use, always inspect tools for defects or damage.

Important steps to maintenance should include:

  • Keep metal blades of all tools sharp and well oiled.

  • Check regularly for loose and worn-out parts on tools and replace them if necessary.

  • Lightly sand and clean wooden parts regularly and treat them with a 50-50 mixture of linseed oil and turpentine.

  • Identify damaged tools and store them in a designated location to arrange for their repair.

  • Check for loose, bent or cracked tool handles, mushroomed tool heads, sprung tool joints or worn teeth. If a hand tool fails the initial inspection, tag the tool clearly as “defective,” and remove it from service.

  • Allow adequate time at the end of each workday to clean tools and properly pack and secure them for transportation or storage.

Make sure everyone on the farm understands these steps as well. Workers should know the job is not complete until the tools are cleaned and stored in a designated location.

Maintaining a safe and efficient work environment will help avoid injuries and unnecessary expenditures in the long run.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

Andy Overbay
  • Andy Overbay

  • Extension Agent
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension
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