Waiting for spring to finally arrive is a little like watching grass grow. Actually, you should start watching your grass grow this time of year, because as soon as those blades are about 4½ high, it will be time to cut them down to size. But before you start your lawn mower engine, know this: The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that a staggering 253,000 people end up in the emergency room each year after nasty encounters with lawn mowers. It’s not too early to start taking precautions.

Injuries related to lawn mowing accidents range from deep cuts, broken bones and burns (from contact with the hot engine, gas tank or exhaust) to amputation of fingers and toes. Lawn mower injuries tend to be severe, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), because mowers are such powerful tools. Not only are those blades sharp, they’re fast. They can shoot dirt and bacteria deep into a wound and greatly raise the risk of infection.

Unless you decide to trade in your lush carpet of Kentucky bluegrass for Astroturf, you’re going to have to mow the lawn. But even though cutting grass can’t be avoided, most lawnmower injuries can. Here are five easy strategies for staying safe around lawnmowers. Learn them now so that you can spend the summer kicked back in a hammock instead of in the hospital.

Be a maintenance maniac. Before it’s time to mow, drag your lawn mower out of the garage and check it over. Read the manual to find out what maintenance it needs. According to lawndoctor.com, you'll want to make sure all the nuts and bolts are tight and that small parts like filters, belts and safety shields are in place. 

If you can manage routine maintenance yourself, make sure the motor is off and completely cool to the touch before you work on the mower. (Take this precaution anytime you’re making adjustments on your lawnmower — for example, when changing the height of the blades.) If you have a gas mower, for added safety, disconnect the spark plug wire before you start working on it. This will eliminate the possibility that the machine will power on while you’re working near the blade.

Be sharp. The sharper the lawn mower blades, the more smoothly and safely the machine will glide through grass. Unless blade sharpening is something you routinely do and you’re good at it, have a pro hone your blades. He’ll do a better job and you won’t risk a nasty cut.

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Counter clogs. Some of the most devastating mower-related injuries occur when people clean grass out of the chute. The best way to avoid these injuries is to prevent clogs in the first place. Long, overgrown grass will wrap more easily around mower blades, so cut your grass frequently. (For a healthy lawn, set your mower to trim grass to a 3-inch height or higher. Cutting it shorter exposes the roots, which can lead to problems including drought, insects and weeds according to the gardening experts at Cornell University.)

Wait until grass is dry to mow — when your yard is no longer damp from morning dew or a rain shower. This will prevent wet clumps of clippings from clogging the chute. If you need to clear out a clog, do it safely. Make sure the motor is fully powered down (not just idling). Use a stick or broom handle — not your bare hands — to rake out the debris.

Clear the way. A typical mower can propel foreign objects at speeds of 100 miles per hour. Before you power up the engine, give your yard a once over. Pick up rocks, sticks, lawn ornaments and anything else you’d rather not have lodged in your leg or propelled through a window. Smart trick: Drag a rake through the grass to find hidden objects buried beneath blades of grass.

Kids (and pets): Keep off the grass. Never cut grass while little ones are nearby. Big ones too, for that matter: The CPSC says that 17,000 of lawn mower accidents happen to kids under age 19. Teach very young children to never go near a lawn mower and don’t be tempted to give a kid a lift on a riding mower. (That goes for you too, Grandpa.) A child should be at least 12 years old before using a push mower, and 16 before operating a riding mower. Shoo the cat or dog into the house before you start mowing as well.

Riding lawn mowers cause more injuries than push mowers, according to the AAOS. That's because they can tip and even roll over. You certainly don't want your child to be nearby or on the mower if that happens.

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Cover up. No matter how hot it is outside, wear appropriate clothing: long, heavy pants like jeans, closed-toe shoes or boots, and protective gear including safety glasses and earplugs are all musts. Prevent sunburn by donning a wide-brimmed hat or visor and slathering on plenty of sunscreen. 

Paul Hope, a trained chef and DIY enthusiast, has restored two houses and writes about food and homes.