They come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, but one tool that every dairy farm uses to get jobs done each day is the tractor. From fieldwork to feeding, these machines make chores easier.
Even if we use multiple tractors to complete various jobs every day, we cannot forget to recognize their power, which makes it all possible. Like the large animals we work with on dairies, tractors can become unsafe in an instant if proper care isn’t taken. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries for adults to work in when measured by death rate, and unfortunately, it tops the list for young people killed on the job, according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. Large equipment plays a significant role in both of those statistics.
Knowing how to avoid incidents involving machinery can save lives and limbs. A series of videos produced by University of Maine Extension highlighted best practices for avoiding tractor injuries, including those by runovers, rollovers, and power takeoffs (PTOs). Be sure that each member of your team, especially inexperienced drivers, is familiar with these safety measures.
Perhaps the best, simplest piece of advice for safely operating equipment is to be aware. Know the terrain you’re on, focus on the task at hand, and know the tractor and its implements.
Before working in a field, do a walk-around to look for stumps, holes, or ditches that could damage or upset the tractor. It’s also good practice to walk around the tractor before you get on to check there are no people or animals in your blind spots. In crowded areas, such as near a farm store or agritourism event, consider signage to warn people tractors may be coming through, explained Jason Lilley, an assistant extension professor.
All drivers should know how to handle the tractors they are using and how they work. A good place to start is the operator’s manual, which will give guidelines for maintenance and operation. Lilley described that older tractors require special caution because they lack many of the safety features that are standard today, such as shields and electrical overrides. These tractors may have wear and tear that can lead to dangerous situations, and they typically have a higher center of gravity, which makes them more prone to roll over. Any tractor manufactured before the mid-1980s will not have a rollover protection structure (ROPS), either. Lilley advised to add a ROPS and be aware of these limitations with older tractors. Talking with an experienced operator to understand where key controls are and safety concerns specific to that piece of equipment is invaluable.
No matter the tractor’s age, never refuel or check fluids while the engine is running or hot to avoid burns and fires. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning for people as well as animals, never run an engine indoors.
It may seem simple, but knowing how to operate your equipment also means knowing how to get on and off to avoid being run over. A clear risk for this is starting the tractor from the ground, Lilley stated. Only start the equipment when you are in the driver’s seat. Likewise, always turn the tractor off before stepping down so it can’t accidentally be bumped into gear as you get off.
Runovers are also prevented by never having additional riders, including people standing on the steps or sitting on the fender. “It just takes one bump or needing to hit the brakes quickly to throw those people off balance,” Lilley said. “A tractor only has one seat, which means that there should only ever be one person on that tractor.”
Avoid a rollover
More than 40% of tractor-related incidents and deaths are caused by rollovers, said Lilley. Most are related to the tractor’s center of gravity, which is the point where there is equal weight on either side both vertically and horizontally. When there is more weight above the tractor’s stability line (where the tires are in contact with the ground), it is at risk of rolling over. For example, moving a bucket tractor with the bucket just above the ground presents less rollover risk than holding the bucket all the way up.
You can also prevent rollovers by avoiding slopes when possible. If not, it is more stable to go up and down the slope than across it, Lilley said.
Rollovers may also be caused by hitching to a tractor’s cab or ROPS. That angle, though, would cause the tractor to fall backward if the attachment became stuck. Lilley emphasized that hitches should be kept low and on the drawbar.
A ROPS is your best line of protection from being crushed in a rollover. “This is designed so that if the tractor were to roll over, you’d be suspended between the rollover bar and the front of the tractor,” Lilley said. He cited that a ROPS prevents serious injury and death in 75% of rollovers, even when the driver is not wearing a seatbelt. With a seatbelt, that number jumps up to 97%. Always use both precautions.
Any cab tractor will have a ROPS, but if you have an open-cab or older tractor without one, visit www.ropsr4u.org to explore rebate options for a retrofit.
PTOs require special caution
A power takeoff or PTO is commonly used with tractors in order to transfer power from the tractor to another implement like a mixer wagon or mower. “At working speed, our PTO shafts are spinning at 540 rotations per minute, or nine times per second,” said Lilley. “There’s no amount of human force that’s going to stop that spin.”
That means anything that comes into contact with an operating PTO is at serious risk. Keep shields in place and in good condition, and don’t wear clothing that is loose or has strings that could become tangled in the PTO shaft. The same warning applies to long hair. Additionally, avoid having chains or ropes on the base of the tractor that could fall or slide back onto the PTO and cause damage, Lilley said.
Whenever working at the rear of the tractor, make sure that, at a minimum, the PTO stub is disengaged. Ideally, the tractor will be shut off. Whether on or off, always walk around the implement instead of stepping over the PTO.
Lilley explained that PTOs can also become dangerous if they are not hooked up properly. To attach a PTO, first raise the master shield, and then align the grooves of the tractor’s PTO stub with the implement’s shaft. Find the button or collar system and push the shaft all the way in until you hear a click. Pull back on the shaft to test the connection, then replace the master shield, he said.
All of these steps and safety checks can seem cumbersome in the moment when chores need to be done and there are dozens of things that also need attention. Lilley’s final rule, though, is to never be in a hurry around tractors.
“It’s extra important that while we’re working under pressure, maybe tired, that we’re taking those few extra seconds to do the tractor walk-around, to review what we’re hooking up, and to review the jobs we’re doing to make sure we’re doing them in as safe of a manner as possible,” he said.
In addition to protecting yourself, that attitude will contribute to teaching youth and other beginners around the farm a culture of safety near equipment that may save them or a loved one someday.