Darla Romberger grew up on a crop and beef farm in Schulkill County, Pennsylvania and her family operates a feed mill. Today, Romberger teaches Ag at Cumberland Valley High School, and says it’s disheartening to find a quick internet search reveals numerous tractor accidents. “The more human error we can eliminate, the better we do,” said Romberger. “When you aren’t paying attention, that’s when bad things happen.”
When Romberger works with youth on tractor safety, she emphasizes three common themes which relate to accidents: lack of communication, safety recommendations which have not been followed, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The common theme in tractor accidents is usually communication,” said Romberger. “When you operate a tractor, you need to be aware of the people around you and safety recommendations. Tractor companies have put a lot of information on their equipment to cover themselves from a liability standpoint.”
Romberger says it’s easy to ignore the numerous stickers and labels on tractors because we use the equipment frequently. However, it’s important to pay attention to warning stickers because they are carefully placed in appropriate places where a specific motion can lead to injury or death is most likely to occur. Labels might indicate potential crushing hazard when the bucket is lifted too high, electrical shock or hydraulic hose precaution. “Labels are on there for a reason,” said Romberger. “Usually to cover the company who manufactured that piece of equipment. If you are working with people who have never used a piece of equipment before, make sure that if a label is supposed to be there, it’s there.
Farm injury cases can be quite prolonged and costly if they go to court, and in many cases a label could have prevented the accident. In one accident, someone tried to dislodge a clog before the equipment was completely shut off and lost a finger in the process. The lawsuit claimed there was no warning label stating there was a potential hazard. However, the equipment had been purchased second-hand, and the label had been partially scratched off. The company claims they aren’t liable because they put a label on the equipment and it should have been in place. In this accident and most others, there are no winners because someone is still suffering the loss of a finger.
Lack of communication happens frequently when people are operating equipment at a busy time of year — planting and harvest are probably the most common times for accidents. Think about the environment in which you’re working with a tractor, and the hand signals which are being used. People are often waving or gesturing, but what if the driver and the person making the gesture haven’t agreed on what the gesture means?
“When there’s a sense of urgency to keep moving along with loud noises and impatience, that’s the perfect storm for a misunderstanding,” said Romberger. “Conversations can be nearly impossible, especially in a closed cab, and all you have is someone giving you hand signals. You need to be on the same page with those signals to make sure you know exactly what’s going on.”
The National Safe Tractor and Machinery Operating Program, or NSTMOP, has developed a set of universal hand signals which are easy to learn, and all who are working on the farm can make sure everyone uses the same signals. “You and your operator, and whoever is working around the equipment, need to be on the same page,” said Romberger. “If someone is 15 feet away versus 100 feet away, the motions need to be more drastic.”
Some of the most commonly used hand signals include “stop”, signaled by raising the hand fully upward, palm to the front. Hold the signal until it’s clear the tractor operator sees and understands the signal. Again, some signals can be easily confused, so it’s important to review signals and make sure everyone is making the same signals to communicate the same messages.
“There is no reason a person should ever be pinched between a tractor and an implement,” said Romberger, noting one of the most common but preventable injuries. “Think about the sights and sounds that are there when equipment is running. If you have impaired hearing to begin with, you won’t be able to hear someone shouting over loud noises, especially if there are multiple tractors or other machinery.”
Be sure to use steps and handholds properly, and keep them in good working condition. “Handholds are important to get on and off,” said Romberger. “When you get on and off, there should be three points of contact — one hand on a handhold, the other hand on another handhold, and your foot on a step. You should always face the tractor when you get on and off.”
Steps on a tractor or implement can be modified to suit an older farmer or one who has a disability. “You don’t want someone to have to lift their leg 24 inches when they really can’t do that,” said Romberger. “That’s a safety concern.”
Tractors equipped with ROPS (roll-over protective structure) prevent the tractor from crushing the operator in the event of a roll-over, but is only useful if the operator is wearing the seatbelt. “The ROPS keeps the tractor propped up off the ground and off the operator,” said Romberger. “But a rollover structure is only good if the operator is wearing a seatbelt.” Newer tractors have both a rollbar and a seatbelt. Older tractors which have rollbars added should also have a seatbelt added to the seat, or exchange the seat for a new one which includes a seatbelt.
A quick review of the exterior of the tractor should include a check of tires, hydraulic fittings, hoses and other flexible pieces. The throttle should be free-moving and the gear pattern and ranges should be clearly marked in case the operator is unfamiliar with the tractor.
Some steering wheels are adjustable, and the operator should always adjust the wheel to a comfortable operating position. Any handles for seat adjustments should be fully functional. The operator must be able to make any adjustments which allow him to sit where he will have full range of motion. “We all remember the time when we first got in a car and the seat was all the way back,” said Romberger. “You’re sitting all the way back, stretching your leg to reach the brake. We don’t want to be in that situation, especially in older tractors where it can be difficult to compress the clutch all the way. You need to have full range of motion with your legs and feet.