Power and size are two features that make farm tractors so valuable – and dangerous.
Modern technology is helping make tractors safer in many ways, but some 60 people still die each year after being run over by a tractor.
Aaron Yoder, Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s (UNMC) College of Public Health, Department of Environmental, Agricultural & Occupational Health, says runover accidents rarely happen in a field. Most often, people are run over by a tractor in their own farm yard.
“This is the time of year farmers work on tractors to prepare them for spring field work,” Yoder says. “That generally happens in an area where other adults and youth are present. When you’re operating a large tractor, there’s not good visibility right around the tractor. Someone – especially a child – could be right next to it and you wouldn’t know it.”
One practice that can help avoid tragic runover accidents is to walk around the tractor just before moving it. This would reveal not only the presence of people in a dangerous area but allow the tractor operator to see any type of obstacle that could be damaged or destroyed if it was run over. Taking those few seconds would also help prevent damage to the tractor if some type of obstacle is in the way.
A quick review of the tractor’s surroundings could also reveal potential trouble from tires frozen to the ground, at risk of becoming stuck, etc. If tires are frozen to the ground, a tractor can flip backwards when power is applied.
A quick inspection of the tractor itself can help spot any tools that were left laying on the tractor or on the ground. If a wagon or other implement is attached to the tractor, checking that the hitch is secure is also a key safety practice.
A walk-around to inspect the tractor itself can also help avoid farm-site accidents. The inspection should include looking for wear on tires or improper inflation. Particular attention should be given to identifying any liquid leaks of oil coolant or fuel. Also check for missing guards and shields.
Having a thorough understanding and knowledge of the tractor manual instructions can help operators recognize any feature or aspect of the tractor that isn’t operating properly. Make sure to review the safety section of the manual a well.
“Before you start the tractor, you want to be sure the tires are properly inflated and free of any defects,” Yoder says. “Check windows for any damage and look at rear-view mirrors to make sure they’re properly adjusted.”
Seat belts should be free of defects or damage and the seat position should accommodate the operator.
“Never start a tractor without being in the operator’s seat,” Yoder says. “And always fasten the safety belt. When you’re sitting inside the cab of a big, modern tractor you don’t expect that there’s anything that can cause you to fall out or be shaken out of that cab. The truth is, there are times when operators are knocked out of the tractor seat by an obstacle like a low-hanging branch. There’s risk of bouncing out of the seat when the tractor hits an obstacle like a tree stump or boulder. You’ll stay safe by doing all you can to prepare for the unexpected.”
Most tractors cannot be started unless you’re in the operator’s seat. However, operators of older tractors sometimes stand beside them when starting them. That practice, especially if they expect the tractor is in neutral but it’s in gear, puts them at great risk for being run over.
Remember to start tractors in a well ventilated areas, especially in winter when tractors are stored inside a building.
Once the operator begins to move the tractor, it’s recommended to start out slowly.
Everyone who will be in proximity of the tractor should have a pre-planned approach to get the attention of the tractor operator if necessary. When starting to move the tractor, testing brakes, and turning the steering wheel in each direction helps ensure its operating properly. If for any reason the tractors power steering doesn’t work, stop the tractor immediately.
Make sure any children at the farm site are continually and properly supervised and within an enclosed area while the tractor is in operation. Make sure everyone in the area knows how to gain and why they need the attention of the operator before approaching the tractor.
On a farm site, large tractors are operated in small spaces. Colliding with an unseen obstacle can cause a tractor cab door to pop open or shatter a windshield. If the collision impact is strong enough, the tractor may roll over.
“Never get out of the tractor while the engine is running,” Yoder says. “Any attempt to operate the tractor from the ground or any other location on the tractor can result in serious injury or death.”
If a tractor won’t start, shorting across starter terminals can result in a runover when the tractor (in gear) lurches into motion.
Allowing an extra rider on the tractor greatly elevates the risk of tractor runover. Extra riders are at great risk for being run over when they ride on a tractor drawbar, axle housing, side links of the three-point hitch, rear-wheel fender or other are around the operator’s seat.
“When you’re standing on any of these areas, it’s easy to lose your grip, fall or be thrown from the tractor and be run over by the tractor or an implement,” Yoder says.
While run over of extra riders is especially risky on older tractors that don’t have a cab, runover accidents can and have happened on newer model tractors that include a cab.
“Cab doors can pop open when there’s some kind of impact, windshields can shatter and other things can happen that cause a rider to fall and be run over,” Yoder says. “Operators should always drive slowly on rough terrain or in an area where they may encounter hidden obstacles. You should never dismount the tractor while it’s in motion.
“Always take a few seconds to think about safety before starting any task,” Yoder adds. “Think about the hazards and what you can do to reduce potential injuries.”