Tractors cause most farming fatalities

Jacqui Becker

The agricultural realm is becoming one of the most dangerous professions, ranking second to the mining industry in the number of fatalities per year. Yet nearly half of agricultural fatalities come from one cause – tractor overturns without rollover protection structures (ROPS), according to statistics from the Iowa Department of Health.

“Twenty-four Iowans lost their lives while they were driving, riding or working around a tractor, which is significantly more than we’ve seen in recent years,” said Chuck Schwab, ISU Extension safety specialist. “Of the 24 fatalities, 15 were from overturns.”

ROPS come in two forms, said Schwab, associate professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering. One, he said, is on cabless tractors.

“It’s a large black bar that comes over top like an upside down `U,'” he said. “The second ROPS structure is found inside the tractor cab, so you can’t see it. It’s hidden beneath a fine-looking flesh matter that includes a very still steel tubing.”

The structures are made to maintain the entire tractor’s weight if it would be overturned. “There is a zone of optimal safety. If you are buckled in, nothing can crush the individual,” he said.

Spraying and mowing are common for overturns. The terrain is more risky, especially with older tractors, said Steve Freeman, assistant professor of industrial education and technology.

Even with the death statistics, farmers are still not taking advantage of the life-saving tool offered through the rollover protective structure, he said.

Freeman performed a study of how older tractors were being resold in Central Iowa to look at the continuation of unsafe equipment and to see if it had ROPS when the tractor changed hands.

“I found that a lot were being sold farmer-to-farmer and don’t have ROPS. The surplus is going through the dealer and didn’t have ROPS. The market still had value, and then they were reselling them,” he said.

In 1976, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandated all agricultural tractors with 20 horsepower or above be manufactured with a seat belt and ROPS. However, this standard did not apply to family farms, and it wasn’t until 1985 that all tractors included the structures, according to his study.

Retrofits, a ROPS fitted for older tractors, are available, but many farmers aren’t ready to spend between $300 and $1,000.

“Most farmers choose not to spend their profit, if they have any, on safety,” Freeman said.

He said it is difficult for him to convince farmers they need ROPS. “They know it causes fatalities, yet they still don’t think it affects them,” he said.

Schwab said one-third of the victims are age 65 or older. “It’s hard to tell a farmer who’s been farming for 35 years that they are doing something wrong,” he said.

Dennis Shannon, manager of Iowa State Research Farms, has found that if his team isn’t regarding safety as the important issue, problems begin. “If we don’t do inspections, things may start to slide. [The farmer] sees it every day and forgets about it. They get busy and can’t get it fixed and done,” he said.

Risto Rautiainen, associate director of Great Plains Center for Agriculture Health at the University of Iowa, said his hometown in Finland has seen the number of fatalities drop through legislation.

“We feel farmers alone can’t afford [the price for the retrofits]. We need support from the government or industry to make it possible. Five hundred dollars for some is too much,” he said. “We would try to offer a $250 award or payment to the tractor owners. Where that’s coming from may still need to be decided.”

Freeman’s study concluded that requiring retrofit policies to have ROPS might increase the price of older tractors in farmer-to-farmer selling. In turn, this may reduce the likelihood of trade-ins with dealers. “Ultimately our goal is to get the older tractors out of being used,” he said.

Shannon said it is important for Iowa State to set an example for others to follow. “We try to present an image other farmers can see when they come to farm days,” he said. “We also stress in rollover protection that they should be using their seat belt.”

Other things stressed at a safety workshop to prevent overturns include slowing the tractor speed when making turns, hitching things low and being careful on steep slopes.