If you’re considering a purchase of a used farm tractor or other machine – even if you aren’t using it to do traditional farm work – safety must be a prime consideration. Machines such as tractors are one of the reasons farming remains the most hazardous industry in the United States, with a death rate that’s seven times all other industries combined. Several hundred thousand people are seriously injured while working on and around farming equipment. Many serious injuries and deaths also occur on properties that wouldn’t often be considered farms such as residential properties with big lawns, properties with a few horses or other animals, and-or wooded acreage.
Here are some critical checkpoints to protect yourself, family members, workers and others who might be using the equipment you purchase.
Obtain an operator’s manual when you purchase any piece of equipment. Pay attention to the specifics to ensure the manual matches the make and model of the equipment you’re purchasing. It’s a good sign when a seller has the original operator’s manual for a piece of equipment they’re selling. It often means routine maintenance was done.
Maintenance should be confirmed by visual inspection and other key indicators such as oil condition, signs of wear and tire tread. Most operator’s manuals have safety instructions and other guidance.
Pay attention to and be sure to understand the information in the manual. If in doubt check with a dealer or other experienced expert. Carefully review the manual and other safety information with all who will be operating the machine.
Rollover protection, seat belts
The one type of incident that makes farming the nation’s most dangerous occupation is tractor rollovers or overturns. Tractors can overturn either to the side – especially when operating on any type of slope – or when turning too quickly at higher speeds.
Tractors also can overturn backward due to the torque involved during certain jobs or when a load is attached to a point above the drawbar. In both scenarios overturns happen fast, and often the operator is crushed under several tons of tractor weight. Those events are almost always fatal, and several hundred tractor operators die each year due to rollovers and overturns.
Tractor manufacturers began to offer rollover protective structures for tractors in the 1960s. This is essentially a rollbar but may be a two-post rollover protective structure or a four-post rollover protective structure. Or the protective structure may be designed as a built-in part of the cab.
In all cases a true rollover protective structure must meet stringent engineering-design standards and will have a nameplate or other indication that it’s designed according to engineering-design standards. A rollover protective structure is designed to limit overturns to 90 degrees or, if the tractor rolls completely, to protect the operator within the space that the structure provides. For rollover protective structures to be effective, the operator must be belted so he or she isn’t crushed by the tractor or the rollover protective structure itself. Look for a tractor with a rollover protective structure as well as a functioning seat belt.
Often, people will encounter used tractors not equipped with a rollover protective structure. That’s common on almost all used machines manufactured prior to 1985. On some of the tractors, retrofit rollover protective structure kits can be purchased and installed by a qualified dealer or service shop.
Check to see if you can obtain a “rebate” for installing rollover protection. On tractors manufactured in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it’s unlikely a retrofit will be available. In those cases carefully consider whether that tractor will fit your operation.
Row-crop tractors with a high center of gravity tend to tip sideways more easily. Narrow front-end tractors also tend to be less stable and more dangerous. A tractor equipped with a front-end loader often will tip more easily when a load is being carried in a position that raises the tractor’s center of gravity.
If someone on your farm lacks operating experience, is young or older – with limits due to reaction time – you may want to avoid a tractor with a protective structure and look for something that’s a little newer with such a structure or a tractor that can be retrofitted.
Guards and Shields
When purchasing any machine inspect and ask for information about guards and shields. Shielding on rotating shafts, belts, gears and other moving parts is vital for protecting operator safety. A shield may seem like a simple piece of sheet metal or plastic, but finding and replacing a missing shield on a machine that is 20 years or older can be very expensive. Often the seller will have a missing shield in a nearby machine shed or other location. Pay particular attention to the master shield that covers the tractor’s power takeoff and the U-joint on an implement when attached. That tends to be a common location of entanglement and serious injury or death.
For safety and operational reasons check the operation, location and condition of all control levers, switches and other devices that control functions such as power takeoff, transmission, throttle, hydraulics, three-point hitch, and lights-flashers. On older equipment the position and location may not have been designed with safety or optimal usability in mind.
Make sure that your height and length of arms and legs as well as other physical abilities allow for easy operation of all controls, and that the controls do what they’re intended to do. Have the seller demonstrate full functionality. If you’re operating newer equipment, make sure to understand the controls that may not be easily understood — such as the steering system on a skid-steer loader or a “joy-stick” control.
For safety reasons, consider the comfort and access to the operator’s station. On tractors make sure the seat is in good condition. Check for broken springs and other things that might be uncomfortable and increase fatigue. Tractors with a newer cab will likely have a blower and a heater. Some also will have air conditioning.
Inspect the air filter and run the blower in all modes. That will help when you operating on hot, cold or dusty days and will help protect your health. Operate a cabbed tractor at full power with the doors and windows closed. The cab should seal well and shouldn’t vibrate or make excessive noise. In older cabs that were field installed “after the fact,” the noise can be as much or more than operating without a cab and you may need hearing protection.
Finally, many injuries on used equipment occur while a person is getting on or off the machine. Sprains and broken bones are common along with head injuries if the operator topples onto concrete or another hard surface. Check the condition of steps, ladders and other devices. The distance between steps should be about the same, and the distance between the bottom step and the ground within comfortable reach. Steps and ladders should be accompanied by handholds or other surfaces you can use to support and steady yourself while getting on and off. This is especially important for older operators who begin to lose a sense of balance and can fall more easily.
It is impossible to cover all aspects of safety in one short document. Learn more about the particular piece of equipment you may be considering for purchase. The operator manual is a great place to start. Check with other credible sources as well.
The authors – John Shutske, Ben Jenkins, Leigh Presley, Joshua Kamps and Ashley Olson – work with the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension.