How to operate an excavator on an incline without fear
by Matt Hendry
April 5, 2019

Working on slopes can be a dangerous activity for excavator operators, as well as the machine itself, which is why it’s important for operators to always take extra care when working on an incline. The following are nine tips to help ensure the safety of your employees and machines on your next sloped project.

1. Pay close attention.

Construction work involving machinery requires the operator’s utmost attention. And working on a slope requires more attention than working on flat ground. Excavators are capable of climbing some very steep inclines, and drivers should proceed with caution when doing so.

2. Use experienced operators.

This work is not something the new guy should tackle. It takes coordination and experience to maneuver a slope. Have your operators start small, working on flat ground and gentle slopes before they graduate to the steeper slopes. 

3. Choose the right track.

Single-bar grousers offer the best traction for slope work. They are similar to dozer tracks and will penetrate ground for extra traction, helping to hold the excavator tightly to the slope. On the other hand, triple-bar grousers are good for flat and reasonable slopes, but they may slide once you begin work on 1-to-1 ratio slopes and other steeper jobs.

4. Check your track direction.

Having the correct track orientation is crucial for safe slope work. Be sure your tracks are pointed up and down when working on the slope—not sideways. Drive motors are heavy, so you want more weight behind you.

Idlers should be forward for uphill work and pointed down slope for downhill work. The idlers are designed to take the digging force of the machine and spread it across the frame via through-axles connected to one side of the frame. Generally, the load factor should be over the idlers.

5. Position the boom & arm for uphill travel.

Stretching out the arm and keeping the boom low to the slope places the weight of the bucket and boom ahead of the machine, so you can walk your way up. You can put the bucket teeth in the ground and use the arm to help pull you up.

6. Adjust your effort on the controls.

Slope work requires a lot of coordination and thinking, as the operator is using their feet to run the travel motors, while using their hands for the controls. When operators are digging on a slope, they need to adjust the amount of effort put into the controls. An operator who gets off-level, especially if they’re unskilled, can get into trouble quickly.

7. Don’t reposition the boom & arm while traveling.

Don’t try to forge up the slope with the power of the travel motors while repositioning the boom and arm. Before repositioning, stop your forward motion, as the machine is apt to slide a little bit, especially if it features triple-bar grousers.

8. Watch your swing.

If you are digging a trench while on a slope, you want the boom and arm in fairly close to the machine when you begin swinging. When you come out of the hole, bring the mast in toward the machine so the swing torque will allow the machine to swing. If you are stretched all the way out, the momentum behind the swing is significant. So, bring the boom and arm in and pull the mast toward the swing bearing to assist the machine. 

If you are swinging downhill, be very gentle on the swing motor. When coming off of the motor with a full bucket, the swing brake will work. However, if you have too much momentum, it will attempt to turn all the way back around and continue swinging downhill against the swing brake

Don’t place the bucket out too far. Pull the bucket in and swing gently so the swing brake can do its job. If the bucket is big and the material is heavy, and you are too far out on the arm, the momentum and weight will overcome the swing brake.

9. Protect your engine.

Typical engine configurations are limited to a 30-degree (70%) slope for lubrication of the engine. Avoid exceeding that gradation for long periods of time because there is only have so much depth and oil in your pump. On severe slopes, it’s hard for the engine to pump oil to the top of the motor, which results in starvation to the top of the engine, decreasing its life cycle.