Recommendations to save your life

When operating farm machinery, pay close attention to safety warnings such as this. Also, never bypass safety devices. Being in a hurry can cost you your life.

It can happen before you have a chance to think. A tractor pulling a corn planter down the road in Pennsylvania jackknifed on an incline. The equipment rolled down a steep grade and the operator, tractor and planter all ended up on the shoulder of the road.

Yet, the grower operating the overturned equipment walked away with just a few bruises, thanks to the fact that the rollover protective structure (ROPS) on the tractor was in its fully upright position and he was wearing his seat belt.

“If he had not been using his seat belt on this ROPS-equipped tractor, he would likely have been thrown from the operator’s station and crushed beneath the unit as it slid down the road on its side,” says Sam Steel, senior research associate in agricultural engineering at Penn State University and longtime agricultural safety specialist. “The question is why the tractor and trailing equipment jackknifed. It most likely did not happen suddenly.”

While a number of factors could have come into play, “the most important contributing factor may have been the difference in weight of the trailing unit and the tractor. The trailing planter most likely outweighed the tractor,” Steel says.

When pulling or operating large equipment—and when using any equipment with an ROPS—it’s important to understand the reasoning behind safety recommendations, such as wearing a seat belt, hitching only to the factory-installed drawbar and keeping buckets as low as possible.

How safe are you?

Farm safety professionals have preached for years about the importance of installing ROPS on all tractors, including older models, but research has shown that even when using tractors equipped with ROPS, “farm operators are not committed to wearing the seat belt since they indicate that they have to get on and off the tractor quite often,” Steel says. Also, when using a tractor with a folding ROPS, operators often do not return the ROPS to its fully upright position after clearing low-hanging branches or other obstacles.

Clearly, your best chance of surviving if your ROPS-equipped equipment overturns is to have the ROPS in its fully upright position and be wearing the seat belt. The ROPS is a cab or frame specially designed to keep the operator in a protective zone if the equipment overturns. Using the seat belt when the ROPS is in the fully upright position is designed to keep you from being thrown, then possibly crushed to death as the equipment overturns.

Tractors are by no means the only type of farm equipment where an ROPS and seat belt can save your life. Equipment, such as skid steer loaders, often used on fruit and vegetable farms “may have had their ROPS cages modified or removed,” Steel says.

“Once again, it is common for the operator to not use the accompanying seat belt. Many machines will not start until the seat belt is fastened, but bypassing this safety feature is common,” he says.

Other issues critical to avoiding injury or death when operating farm equipment are understanding how the center of gravity comes into play and knowing why proper hitching is important, Steel says.

“The center of gravity on a tractor is based on a tractor with no attachments or additions. When a bucket is put on the front, operators must be very careful when transporting the bucket in the up position with a load in it. The higher the bucket—especially with a load—the higher the center of gravity and the easier the unit will overturn,” he explains.

Proper hitching is also important. “The only place to hitch trailing equipment—or when pulling stumps or fence posts—is the factory-installed drawbar,” Steel says. “The center of gravity can be dangerously affected by hitching at other locations.”

Forklift safety

If you or your employees operate forklifts and are subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, specific training rules apply. Federal OSHA requires all operators to be properly trained and certified before operating a forklift. “All forklift operators should use their seat belts,” Steel says. “Also, cages over the operator’s station will provide overhead protection for the operator if containers or product falls while the forklift is in use.”

Here are a few of the basics of OSHA’s forklift training requirements:

  • Employees under the age of 18 are prohibited from operating a forklift.
  • Both formal (such as a lecture or video) and practical (demonstration and practical exercises) training must be provided.
  • Employers must certify that each operator has received the required training and must evaluate each operator at least once every three years. This evaluation could be as simple as having the trainer observe the person being trained performing several typical operations to ensure that the forklift is being operated safely. Note: The trainer can be one of your own experienced forklift operators.
  • Refresher training must be provided whenever an operator has been seen operating the forklift in an unsafe manner, when they have been involved in an accident or a near-miss incident and whenever the worker is assigned to operate a different type of forklift. Refresher training must also be provided when changes in workplace conditions occur that could affect safe operation of the forklift.

Two resources for information on OSHA’s Powered Industrial Truck (forklift) Standard are OSHA’s Safety and Health Topics Web page on Powered Industrial Trucks (, then search for powered industrial trucks) and OSHA’s eTool (, then click on eTools).

Skid Steer Safety Checklist

Pass this checklist on to your employees who operate skid steer loaders. These recommendations are from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Visit for a NIOSH Alert titled “Preventing Injuries and Deaths from Skid Steer Loaders” (NIOSH Publication No. 98-117), which is also available in Spanish at

Safe Operating Procedures

  • Operate the loader from the operator’s compartment—never from the outside.
  • Stay seated when operating the loader controls.
  • Work with the seat belt fastened and the restraint bar in place.
  • Keep your arms, legs and head inside the cab.
  • Load, unload and turn on level ground when possible.
  • Travel and turn with the bucket in the lowest position possible.
  • Operate on stable surfaces only.
  • Do not travel across slopes. Travel straight up or down, with the heavy end of the machine pointed uphill.
  • Keep bystanders away from the work area.
  • Never disable safety devices.

Entering and Exiting Safely

  • Enter the loader only when the bucket is flat on the ground, or when the lift arm supports are in place.
  • When entering the loader, face the seat and keep a three-point contact with handholds and steps.
  • Never use foot or hand controls for steps or handholds.
  • Keep all walking and working surfaces clean and clear.
  • Before leaving the operator’s seat: lower the bucket flat to the ground, set the parking brake and turn off the engine.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based freelance writer.