Combatting the Labor Shortage with Safe, One-Man Earth Drills

Little Beaver earth drill

The current labor shortage heavily affects construction and landscaping projects across the country. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees between the ages of 55-70 in the construction industry planned to retire early. With difficulties drawing the younger generations into manual labor positions, contractors need to consider how their equipment can help fill in the gaps as they work on managing crew size.

In these challenging circumstances, innovative equipment design provides an effective solution to maximizing a crew’s productivity without sacrificing safety. In the compact earth drill market, contractors are seeing success with efficient, durable and safe equipment like torque-free one-man earth drills that reduce labor costs and increase productivity.

Do More with Less

While labor shortages affect everyone, smaller crews obviously feel the effects more keenly than their larger counterparts. When smaller crews have difficulty filling positions, the need to accomplish work with fewer people is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Earth drilling is one area that offers the opportunity to help a crew be more efficient. While fast and powerful earth drills were once only thought to be safely operated with two crew members, the loss of one more set of hands on the jobsite is no longer acceptable.

One-man drilling is an often-overlooked way to increase crew availability by freeing up that second operator. It’s true that equipment-powered earth drill attachments, like those that available for skid steers and compact utility loaders, allow drilling with a single operator, but at the expense of efficiency, maneuverability and jobsite logistics, not to mention the initial equipment investment. However, industry-leading earth drill designs provide a cost-effective, safe and efficient way to reduce labor requirements in earth drilling applications.

The invention of torque-free mechanical and hydraulic earth drills created a safe, productive alternative to two-man drills and larger compact equipment with earth drill attachments. These units allow a single operator to safely accomplish high-speed drilling at a steady 360 rpm. A 69-inch-long (1.75-meter-long) steel torque tube connects the drill’s handle to the unit’s engine where it’s mounted on a separate carrier. If the auger hits an obstacle, the drill’s torque and kickback transfer to the engine carrier rather than the operator, making true one-man drilling safe and effective.

Maneuverability for the Win

Towable and hitch-mounted earth drills provide additional single-operator drilling options. Many models feature a “teeter-totter” design with wheels incorporated near the center that offset the weight of the machine by the engine. The user-friendly design reduces physical push-down force and cuts operating weight by as much as 50 percent over traditional earth drills, allowing older workers to maneuver the drill without risking injury.

Little Beaver hydraulic earth drill

While ease of operation is key for reducing worksite injuries, it shouldn’t come at the expense of power. Drills clearly need to operate with high torque to maximize productivity, but if that torque transfers to the operator, it can take a significant toll on their body. For even greater productivity and safety, the frames of these towable and hitch-mounted drills absorb drilling torque, keeping the operator in complete control of the drill without worrying about kickback.

Some also feature a variable auger tilt to allow for vertical drilling on uneven terrain, such as hills. This greatly reduces operator strain and the strength needed to control the drill. By tilting the drill to offset the slope, the operator remains level and simply adjusts the auger to the desired position, protecting against injury.

Safety First

Contractors know that on-the-job accidents remain common in manual labor professions. Keeping employees safe and healthy protects against additional worker shortages; and, while on-site safety isn’t a new concern, contractors should consider the safety features of equipment they’re using.

Some safety features aren’t available on all earth drills on the market. Some machines offer safeguards to prevent hazardous conditions when drilling, especially when it comes to one-man drilling.

There are two typical designs for engine mounts: handle-mounted and chassis-mounted. A chassis-mounted unit sits a few feet away from the drilling site and protects operators from breathing in any harmful emissions. Kickback on traditional earth drills jars the entire drill, sometimes resulting in injury to the operator, including finger, hand and arm injuries. As mentioned earlier, steel torque tubes protect operators from kickback on some mechanical and hydraulic earth drills. Earth drills without a control system require operators to use extra effort to control the drill and, with time, the effort will take a toll on their bodies. The torque tube reduces fatigue and physical stress that can lead to back problems and muscle strains.  

Little Beaver earth drill

Beyond features that negate kickback, earth drill manufacturers offer a variety of safety features for each type of drill they offer. For hydraulic units, look for a pressure relief valve. The valve engages when the drill reaches a predetermined hydraulic pressure. It stops the auger rotation before the drill can reach the overload point. Similarly, look for mechanical earth drills built with a centrifugal clutch. If the auger encounters an object beneath the surface or if it’s overloaded, the clutch automatically slips to protect the operator from serious injury.

Safety features such as these can help keep crews fully staffed when labor shortages hit. By minimizing physical stress on operators, these drills help reduce the likelihood of injuries and keep crews safe and healthy on the job.

Building for the Future

It’s no secret that it’s difficult to find people willing to do manual labor, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. As retirement and a shrinking workforce continue to affect contractors, more equipment options are necessary to provide an ideal solution for each business’ challenges. Efficient, durable and safe one-man earth drilling equipment is an effective way to work smarter and not harder in the wake of labor shortages.

Joe Haynes is president of Little Beaver.