Tractor safety is undoubtedly an issue you have been stressing on your farm for years. Yet the national focus on tractor safety often fails to take into account many of the primary reasons for tractor-related injuries and deaths in California.

Nationwide, approximately 250 people die in tractor-related incidents each year. These deaths account for more than one-third of all of the annual agriculture-related fatalities. Rollovers are typically responsible for more than half of these tractor-related deaths. As a result, national tractor safety training messages often strongly emphasize rollover prevention, including equipping tractors with rollover protective structures (ROPS) and seat belts.

While rollovers do of course occur in California agriculture, our research over the years has shown that runovers appear to equal or exceed rollovers as the primary cause of tractor-related deaths in our state. In addition, California agriculture is vastly different than agriculture in most of the rest of the United States. More than 80 percent of our state's agricultural production occurs on very large farms, which use hired farmworkers. California farmers grow a wide diversity of high value crops on irrigated land, and the tractor rollovers that do occur most often involve ditches or ditch banks/creeks, versus hilly terrain.

As a result of these differences, it's important for California farmers to understand exactly how tractor-related injuries and deaths are occurring here. Then, it's critical that safety training programs take these issues into account and be presented in a manner that is most effective.

Our research over the years shows that California farmers and/or their workers are most commonly injured or killed in tractor-related incidents as follows:

Runovers

The primary contributing factors are operators dismounting the tractor while it is still running to perform work on the ground; running over another worker on the ground; or falling off the tractor (either the operator or an extra rider), then being run over.

Rollovers

Nationally, rollovers often occur when tractors are operated on steep slopes or other uneven terrain. In California, however, rollovers most often occur when the operator gets too close to a ditch or a bank at the edge of a field or along a rural road. In addition, rear overturns occur when implements or loads are not properly hitched to the tractor.

Towed implements and crushing injuries

Injuries involving towed implements generally occur in California when a worker falls off of a trailer or other towed implement being pulled by the tractor and is either run over or crushed. Injuries and deaths also occur when an operator falls off of the tractor and is crushed by the towed implement.

Tractors on roadways

Car-tractor collisions usually occur when the driver of a car misjudges how slow a tractor is moving and the amount of time it takes to cross a roadway. Collisions also occur when tractors have insufficient lighting and marking and aren't visible to the car driver until it is too late.

Effectively training your workers in these issues is critical to reducing injuries and deaths. Dr. Richard Cavaletto, professor and interim head of the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, cites these examples of the types of tractor-related training that work:

Hands-on training that gets down to the specifics of your tractors and your policies

Conduct your training sessions around the tractors your employees use and talk specifically about “how we are going to do this with our tractors.” Don't just make broad statements such as “no extra riders.” Instead, “talk specifically about what happens if a worker needs a ride back from the field to your main location — how you deal with this at your farm. Do you have a radio? Do you make the person walk back half a mile?” Cavaletto says.

Training that ensures your workers understand why it is important to them

“If you are just doing this because of Cal/OSHA, your employees will know that. The bigger issue is to say to them: ‘At the end of the day I want you to be able to go home to your families (uninjured).’ We have to look at our motivation — why we are doing this training,” Cavaletto says.

Training in small groups

Training that is one-on-one or done in very small groups is most effective because there are more opportunities for discussion.

Training that includes a practical evaluation component

“We never complete the loop by observing a week or a month later whether the employees are wearing their seat belts on the tractor,” Cavaletto says. “If they are, tell them that's good — reinforce what they learned during their training. Training can be difficult with different cultures, translations, etc., so this is the only way you will know how well they understood the message.”

Basic tractor safety tips

Don't leave the driver's seat or cab until you have turned off the engine and made sure the tractor has come to a complete stop. Then take the key with you.

Always be on the lookout for nearby workers on the ground.

Don't carry passengers or “extra riders.”

Don't operate too close to ditches or creeks.

Slow down when operating in fields that contain holes or other hazards resulting in uneven terrain.

Make sure tractors are equipped with ROPS and that seat belts are worn when the ROPS is in the upright and locked position.

Only hitch to the drawbar or to other hitch points specified by the manufacturer.

Make sure all loads are secure, balanced, and not too heavy for your tractor to handle.

Check your lighting, brakes, and the condition of your slow-moving vehicle emblem (SMV) before operating on a roadway.

(James M. Meyers has served as the director of the California Farm Safety Program, a cooperative effort of USDA and the University of California, since 1995. In addition to his farm safety work, he and a team of cooperators established the UC Agricultural Ergonomics Research Center, which conducts research and extension on identification, analysis, and control of ergonomics risk factors of in agricultural workplaces. He is located in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley.)