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Quick disclaimer: The contents of this piece are not meant to replace any formal backhoe safety or operator training or instruction required by law.
Backhoes—The Swiss Army Knives of Any Job Site
Knowing how to operate a backhoe makes you an unstoppable force on the job site. This guide is going to quickly show you the basics of how to use a backhoe easily and safely—in plain language.
Ready to get started? Let’s learn how safely enter, power up, drive, dig, and load with a backhoe.
How do you safely enter a backhoe?
- If the backhoe has a cab door, open it using the door latch.
- When climbing the steps to enter the backhoe, maintain three points of firm contact (three of your limbs) at all times for safety purposes.
- Carefully climb the steps and grip the entrance handle. Turn your body completely backward as you enter the cab—keeping three points of contact until you are fully seated.
- Check for any door obstructions and close the door firmly.
- Buckle your seatbelt and make sure it is firmly secured.
- Adjust the seat and mirrors to enable proper visibility and control access as needed.
How do you start up a backhoe?
- Make sure the parking brake is engaged.
- Check that all attachment control levers are set to the “HOLD” position.
- Check that direction control levers are set to the “NEUTRAL” position.
- Look to see that there are no obstructions to the front or rear of the backhoe.
- Turn the ignition one-quarter turn.
- Press the foot control after you hear an audible beep—though this feature may not be present on all backhoe models.
- Disengage the parking brake.
- Continue the ignition turn until the backhoe engine is running smoothly.
How do you drive a backhoe?
Most backhoes drive much like an automobile—with a front-facing steering wheel, gear shift/speed settings (depending on model), turn indicators, floor throttle pedal to the right, and brakes to the left.
How do you adjust the driving speed of a backhoe?
To the left of the steering wheel on many models, you’ll find an adjustable speed control—a lever that may resemble a turn indicator but acts more like a gear shifter. On newer backhoes, you will be able to flip through speed settings on the fly—even while driving. Older backhoes may have a transmission system that requires the engagement of a clutch mechanism to shift gears or speeds. Use the speed settings to better control the responsiveness of the throttle.
Why are there two different brake pedals on many backhoes?
Some backhoe models have right and left brake pedals that can be used together or independently—usually to accommodate steering in difficult terrain. To use the brakes together, ensure that the brakes are pushed in tandem—typically with the help of connecting latch. Disconnect the pedals from each other for independent function.
How do I operate the front-end bucket loader on a backhoe?
Most backhoe front-end boom and buckets function very similarly to other front-end loaders—using a right-hand level located alongside your right knee when seated in the driving position.
- To lift the boom and bucket: pull back on the right-side lever.
- To lower the boom and bucket: push forward on the right-side lever.
- To open/tilt forward/empty the bucket: push the right-side lever to the right.
- To close/tilt backward the bucket: push the right-side lever to the left.
Many newer backhoes have an auto-leveling feature that keeps the bucket level when compared to the positioning of the boom arms.
How do you use a backhoe’s digging controls?
Rotating the Operator’s Seat of a Backhoe
- Before you rotate the operator’s seat to use the digging controls, it’s helpful to set the loading bucket very low or on the ground for stability and a low center of gravity.
- Put the backhoe in a neutral speed or gear.
- Engage the parking brake.
- Flip the steering wheel upward and out of the way. This can be done on most backhoe models with a switch or lever at the base of the steering wheel—much like adjusting the level of a steering wheel in an automobile.
- To rotate the seat, locate a lever just between your legs when seated. This unlatches the seat from a forward-facing position, letting the seat spin for access to rear-facing digging controls.
What levers control what functions when digging with a backhoe?
Use the following image of backhoe controls for reference for instructions for use below it. Keep in mind that backhoe digging controls may vary from model to model. These controls are for a slightly older model. Digging controls on many newer model backhoes will resemble two ergonomic joysticks rather than levers. If these are the type of controls found, you will need to pull them back toward you and unlock them to use them by locating unlocking switches.
How do you operate backhoe stabilizer/outrigger controls? (C. & D.)
Before you can begin digging, the backhoe needs to be stabilized to account for digging loads. To stabilize the backhoe, you will do so with left and right-side stabilizers—also known as outriggers or jacks.
To control these, you’ll find two levers either in the center-most section or off to the left on the floor. On older model machines whose controls resemble the diagram above, these will be the two smaller levers (C. and D.) between the larger left and right levers. On newer models, the stabilizer controls are two levers toward the floor to your left.
These stabilizers can be moved independently to make the proper adjustments for stability on uneven surfaces or terrain or pushed down in tandem.
- To raise or lower the left stabilizer: push the left stabilizer lever (C.) forward (away from you) to increase the elevation of the left side of the backhoe.
- To raise or lower the right backhoe stabilizer: push the right stabilizer lever (D.) forward (away from you) to increase the elevation of the right side of the backhoe.
Engage the stabilizer controls until they reach the ground and you feel the slightest bit of lift. This indicates that the weight of the backend and excavator arm are not being solely supported by the wheels and tires. Find the right balance of stability and a low center of gravity before digging.
A. Left Arm Backhoe Control
The left hand lever or joystick controls (A.) the boom—the first section of the backhoe’s rear arm that is closest to your cab—your stick and swing.
- To lift the boom: pull the left lever back toward you.
- To lower the boom: push the left lever forward—away from you.
- To swing the boom from side to side: move the left lever from right to left. On some models, the boom swing may be controlled by right and left foot pedals.
B. Right Arm Backhoe Control
The right hand lever (B.) controls the stick—the second portion of the backhoe’s rear arm that attaches to the bucket. This is also referred to as the dipper or the dipper stick.
- To bring the stick and bucket toward the cab: pull the right lever back toward you.
- To move the stick and bucket away from the cab: push the right lever forward, away from yourself.
- To “curl” or pull the bucket inward for digging: move the right lever to the left.
- To move the bucket outward for dumping: move the right lever to the right.
Additional Backhoe Controls
Backhoe Throttle Control
To your left when seated in the excavator operator position, you’ll find a knob on your control panel that controls your digging throttle. This throttle control allows you to adjust the engine revolutions per minute (RPM) for different backhoe digging styles or attachments to deliver the appropriate power.
Smaller, more detailed jobs may only require lower RPMs while heavier-duty jobs or attachments require higher RPMs for more power. Additional backhoe attachments will require specific operating RPM ranges—figures that should be considered so you can make the proper adjustments to your throttle controls.
Backhoe Boom Lock/Unlock
Your boom lock (or boom unlock) is a mechanism that keeps the backhoe boom safely disengaged until you are ready to use it. Most backhoe boom locks are operated either through a floor pedal or lower, center lever—depending on the backhoe model.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the controls, it’s time to look at how to use them in various scenarios.
How do you operate a backhoe when front loading or scooping?
- Drive your backhoe to the pile from which you wish to scoop or load material.
- Be very careful when loading from a large pile of material. Fast or aggressive loading can result in leaving the pile unstable and collapsing on your backhoe.
- Slowly approach the base of the pile with a medium speed setting—such as a “2.”
- Bring your bucket flat (level) and near touching the ground.
- Slowly drive into the pile.
- As you begin to drive forward and begin to feel downward pressure, gently pull back on the right-side loader controls to begin to raise the bucket—alternating forward acceleration with gentle tilting back of the bucket to fill it with material.
- Once the bucket is full, shift into reverse and slowly navigate backward away from the pile.
- To empty the bucket, raise the loader and curl the bucket downward. For stubborn or stickier material, shake the loading lever in short and quick movements from right to left (much like making sure a standard transmission car is in neutral) to jostle it loose.
- When driving with a loaded bucket, make sure to keep it low to the ground—likely just above the front clearance of the backhoe. Traveling with a raised bucket not only limits visibility but also elevates the center of gravity, potentially making the backhoe unstable.
How do you operate a backhoe while digging?
- Drive your backhoe to the digging area, backing up to the place you would like to dig. Make sure to leave enough rear and side clearance.
- Once parked, put the backhoe in neutral and engage the parking brake.
- Lower the front bucket either on the ground or very close to the ground.
- Rotate your seat into the digging position.
- Lower the stabilizers to relieve the back wheels of the weight of the backhoe in a level manner.
- Adjust the throttle control to the appropriate RPMs — lower for delicate work and higher for heavier jobs.
- Pull the left arm control towards slowly you until the boom reaches its maximum height and disengage the boom lock—typically a pedal on the bottom right or a lever just in front of you. This should be done while simultaneously pulling the left arm back toward you.
- Push the boom down by pushing the left arm control away from you slowly. Push the stick out by pushing the right arm control away from you. Moving both the stick and the boom at the same time gives you maximum reach.
- Move the right arm control to the left to curl the bucket towards you. Hold the lever left until additional pressure is felt—indicating that the bucket is full.
- Bring the boom up by slowly pulling the right arm towards you.
- Use the left arm control to carefully swing the boom right or left full bucket to a dumping spot.
- Move the right arm control to the right to dump the bucket.
- Use the left arm control to move the boom back over the dig site. Repeat steps 7 through 12 as necessary.
Backhoe Safety Tips
In inexperienced or careless hands, backhoes can be immensely dangerous. Sticking to some basic safety tips can greatly reduce the instances of damage to equipment and property or injury and even death.
- Do not drive backhoe loaders at excessive speeds. Due to their size and center of gravity, backhoes can tip or roll over quite easily when not operated responsibly.
- Always keep loaded buckets close to the ground to keep the center of gravity low.
- Check all fluid levels before operating a backhoe to reduce instances of equipment failure or premature wear.
- Always make sure you know exactly where all of the utility lines are located (both below and above) before operating a backhoe.
- Never assume a pathway is clear—double or even triple check to make sure.
For more information about backhoe operator safety, check out OSHA’s Backhoe Loader Student Manual.
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