Real-life scenario*: In 2003, a 14-year-old boy died while helping his grandfather clear farmland of fence posts. The boy was operating a utility tractor equipped with a homemade rollbar and seatbelt. They had successfully removed several posts using the tractor’s 3-point hitch lift arms, but encountered a post that wouldn’t budge. The grandfather switched to another method to pull posts using the rear wheel, something he had learned from his father many years ago. They backed up the tractor into position, adjacent to the wooden fence post. The tractor was facing up a slight slope. An old chain was secured to the bottom of the post and the other end was looped around the rear tire. Normally, as the wheel would turn, it would pull the post upward and forward. The boy had the tractor in first gear, with throttle applied. As he released the clutch, the post did not move, but the tractor’s front end jumped upward. The grandfather yelled, but the boy had no time to react, and the tractor rolled completely over backwards. Large pieces of the axle housing snapped off from both sides as the rollbar collapsed. The boy was instantly crushed underneath.
Overturned tractors are the leading cause of occupational agricultural deaths in the U.S., according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). National data suggests that 1 of every 10 tractor operators overturns a tractor in their lifetime. Overturns are a significant issue with rural lifestyle customers, too, who may not have tractor operating experience.
What’s the answer? Safe use of Rollover Protective Structures (ROPS). NIOSH estimates that fatality numbers could be reduced by at least 71% if all tractors in the U.S. were equipped with ROPS — and if ROPS were used correctly.
Studies show many factors influence safe ROPS use, including the operator’s age, region, farm size and even farm income. Rural lifestyle dealers can — and should — influence ROPS use as well, says Roger Hoy, director of the Univ. of Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory and chair of the U.S. ROPS subcommittee of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE).
“Who has and uses ROPS safely — and who doesn’t — can be influenced by dealer attitudes,” Hoy says. “Dealers can have a major impact with customers.”
Hoy adds a dealer’s focus on safety makes business sense, too. “Generally, when there’s an accident, anybody who has been involved with the incident or equipment in any way is pulled into the litigation.”
“From a business perspective, dealers have to understand they are contractually obligated to the manufacturer regarding proper installation,” says Jim Schmitt, director of engineering and regulatory compliance for Custom Products of Litchfield, Minn. In business since 1962, Custom Products manufactures ROPS for such OEM manufacturers as Toro, Caterpillar and Vermeer.
Why ROPS are a Must
ROPS, although necessary, are the second line of defense, says Schmitt.
“The first is not to roll the tractor over,” he says, emphasizing that dealers need to urge rural lifestyle customers to get proper operator training.
If a tractor overturns, customers need to understand the role of ROPS: to keep the operator in a protective zone. When used with the seat belt, ROPS will greatly reduce the likelihood of the operator being thrown from the zone and crushed from an overturning tractor or attached equipment. ROPS also absorbs energy if there is a turnover, helping limit subsequent turnovers.
“ROPS are designed to protect against normal field overturns when the tractor is used correctly,” Hoy warns. “Survival is not guaranteed, especially if the tractor is overweight, is involved in a multiple-overturning scenario or is operated at high speed.”
There are several types of ROPS — a 2-post frame (fixed and fold-down versions), a 4-post frame, and a ROPS with enclosed cab. Schmitt says there are other types and he’s even seen a one-post ROPS. The critical factor is that the structure and material have been thoroughly designed and tested with the tractor under a myriad of conditions. ROPS should never be homebuilt, says Hoy.
“You might be a certified welder, but you can’t replace the engineering knowledge or the testing ability of the manufacturers,” he says.
Dealers need to stress ROPS shouldn’t be home-installed either, Hoy adds, because only the manufacturers or trained dealers have the equipment and knowledge required for installation. Hoy reminds dealers to always double-check part numbers to match the tractor with the manufacturerrecommended ROPS and other parts, such as bolts.
Safety Discussion Points
Experts provide these guidelines for educating customers about lifesaving ROPS:
— Any safety discussion has to begin with strong recommendations that customers thoroughly read the operator’s manual, which describes safe operation procedures — especially in terms of fold-down versions, how to wear seat belts and owner/user ROPS inspection procedures. Schmitt says operators can become careless with fold-down ROPS, neglecting to secure them in the unfolded position when a low-clearance job is over.
— Dealers should stress that ROPS should never be modified. This includes attaching or securing nonapproved equipment to the structure. “The design does not allow for anything to be welded to it or any form of modification. Even drilling holes for lights or attaching a chain to pull something changes the protective properties of the ROPS,” says Schmitt.
— Customers should do routine checks of ROPS every time the tractor is used, says Schmitt. In particular, customers should look for any signs of wear, rust, loosening bolts or soiled or damaged seatbelts.
— ROPS are only designed to withstand one incident, be it a rollover or even a collision, such as with a garage door or a tree. Dealers should stress the need for the tractor to be brought in for a qualified inspection and possible ROPS replacement.
— Dealers should educate customers about the purchase of older tractors. In 1985, OSHA standards required all tractors operated by employees to be fitted with ROPS. Manufacturers complied by adding ROPS on all new tractors.
Manufacturers such as Case IH, Kubota, New Holland and John Deere offer low-cost retrofit ROPS kits for tractors manufactured from the mid 1960s to 1985, according to the National Ag Safety Database.
A listing of ROPS retrofits for farm tractors manufactured since 1967 has been compiled by the National Farm Medicine Center, and it’s titled “A Guide to Agricultural Tractor Rollover Protection.” For more information, go to www.marshfieldclinic.org/NFMC/ and click on the “projects and products” tab.
Overcoming the ‘Hassle’ Factor
Experts say dealers also need to address customer attitudes. Hoy says most customers won’t argue against the safety benefits of ROPS. They will, however, not use ROPS correctly, such as not wearing the seatbelt, because of the perceived hassle factor, previous habits or poor training. Hoy says studies show that both older and younger operators seem to be particularly vulnerable to habits that could lead to rollover fatalities. These accidents are especially tragic for rural lifestyle customers, where family members are often near the scene.
Schmitt says dealers must discuss and show ROPS as a first step.
“Urge your customers not to take anything for granted,” he says. “If there’s a question, check with the owner’s manual.”
He offers some business advice for dealers, too. “If I was a dealer taking in an older tractor and there was no ROPS retrofit kits available, I would scrap it out, rather than placing it back into service.”
OSHA Tips for Safe Tractor Operation
1. Securely fasten your seatbelt if the tractor has a ROPS.
2. Where possible, avoid operating the tractor near ditches, embankments, and holes.
3. Reduce speed when turning, crossing slopes, and on rough, slick or muddy surfaces.
4. Stay off slopes too steep for safe operation.
5. Watch where you are going, especially at row ends, on roads and around trees.
6. Do not permit others to ride.
7. Operate the tractor smoothly – no jerky turns, starts or stops.
8. Hitch only to the drawbar and hitch points recommended by tractor manufacturers.
9. When tractor is stopped, set brakes securely and use park lock if available.
*Incident information is from the Iowa Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program. For complete details, go to www.cdc.gov/niosh/face/stateface/ia/03ia020.html.