Correct tractor operation saves lives on the farm
Despite recent improvements in safety standards, tractors remain the biggest cause of fatalities in the agricultural world. It is not so much the tractors themselves killing people but their improper operation. Tractors are inherently dangerous and unstable machines which are often driven in difficult conditions.
Tractor safety under the law
Under Australian law, all tractors manufactured, imported or originally purchased after 1 January 1981 must be fitted with rollover protection structures (ROPS). Exceptions are machines weighing less than 560 kilograms or more than 3860 kilograms, or those which are used primarily under trees or in other places where there is not enough room above the tractor for an ROPS, or those that operate in a fixed position as an engine. Much of tractor safety is encompassed by the rhyming acronyms ROPS and FOPS (Falling Objects Protection Structure). FOPS are mandatory on all earthmoving equipment (under AS 2294) manufactured, imported or purchased after 1 January 1989.
Cause and prevention
But even the cleverest acronyms in the world can’t protect the individual against all possible dangers. And stupidity always rises to the surface. For example, if the driver doesn’t wear a seat belt and the tractor rolls over and tumbles down a steep hill, the risk of death or serious injury is huge even with ROPS of the highest standard. Rolling over either laterally or backwards are the most dangerous tractor crashes. The general view is that the majority of crashes occur on steeply sloping terrain. Nevertheless, as many as 50 per cent of mishaps occur on ground that is either flat or with a very gradual slope. Obstacles such as stumps, large stones, deep ruts and ditches are quite capable of upsetting a vehicle whose centre of gravity is high and which is inherently unstable. Taking corners too fast can provoke a rollover. Falling from tractors (which is a major achievement if you are wearing a seat belt) is the single greatest cause of fatalities. Children should never be allowed to ride shotgun unless they are wearing a seat belt and are securely (and comfortable) located. It is unlikely that many tractor drivers wear a tie or a billowing skirt on the job but make sure that none of your clothing can get caught up in the mechanicals. Wear close-fitting gear. Guards should be fitted to PTO shafts and all associated machinery. Don’t wear dancing shoes on the tractor but choose footwear with a firm grip.
Safe tractor operation
Remember reverse gear. If you are stuck, try to reverse. This is also the preferred approach for steep ascents. Descend big hills in first gear, using engine braking. It is a good idea to walk difficult terrain before driving on it. How deep is that patch of mud? Is the bottom of that rut firm? Never hitch above the centre-line of the rear axle, around the housing or to the top link pin. A correctly hitched load makes it less likely that the front wheels will part company with terra firma (never a good party trick, despite what motorcyclists like to demonstrate).
Try to limit speed to 12 km/h unless you are driving on a decent surface like a bitumen road.
Finally, we arrive at the bleeding obvious. Never dismount when the tractor is moving.
Make sure the handbrake is engaged (and working) before getting off.
Always get into the driver’s seat before starting the engine.
Keep the steps and pedals free of grease.
Only consider changing a wheel when the surface is flat and chock the other wheels regardless. The jack should have a wide base and adequate load capacity.
Think about your health. A tractor is such a useful device that it may become your home office. Choose a model that has a suspension seat which absorbs much of the shock. Long exposure to vibration can cause back damage.
Tyres deteriorate with age even if the tractor is not used often. The simple presence of tread does not tell the whole tale. Check for dry rot and cracks. (Tyres can easily set you back $1000, which changes the value equation on a cheap tractor.)