Machinery Safety On The Farm

According to the National Agricultural Tractor Safety Initiative, tractors that turn over, run over someone, have people get entangled in equipment and are involved in highway collisions are the leading causes of death and serious injury in farming. Those types of accidents account for about 250 deaths per year in the United States. Unfortunately, it often takes a close call or tragedy to inspire safety changes on the farm. In this article you will learn more about safety around farm equipment. The life you save might be your own!

On the modern equine farm, we use a variety of light-, medium- and heavy-weight machinery, and it’s imperative that we operate this equipment safely. Equipment such as tractors, manure spreaders (ground driven and PTO), hay-making equipment, hay storage systems and rotary cutters make life easier, but these machines require training, knowledge and skill to operate safely. In North Carolina and across many other states, these machines kill an average of 100 farmers every 10 years, and injure thousands of others. The statistics hold true for our equine colleagues in Canada, too.

Tipping Point

Most accidents stem from tractor overturns—75% to the side and 25% to the rear. The rear overturn is the most deadly because the weight of the tractor usually lands on the operator’s chest and abdomen. This can crush vital organs or place so much weight on the chest the operator cannot breathe and suffocates.

Think about the last time you felt your tractor lean due to a high center of gravity while loading a round bale in the barn, or having a load in the front end loader and traveling up or down hill. The center of gravity changes in our tractors as we raise and lower loads. The average tractor roll-over takes approximately 1.6 seconds from upset to resting on the ground.

Given this, ask yourself: Do you wear seat belts? Does your tractor have a Roll Over Protective Structure (ROPS/Roll Bar)? Since 1976, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has required ROPS and seat belts on tractors.

Common Injuries

Other common tractor-related injuries are related to the Power Take Off (PTO) shafts on tractors. This shaft takes the power from the tractor and transmits it to an implement such as rotary cutters (brush hogs), augers, hay cutting and bailing equipment, and manure spreaders. The shaft turns in a clockwise fashion as you face the rear of the tractor. The shaft turns at 540 or 1,000 revolutions a minute.

That equals 9 to 16.66 revolutions every second. Think how many times you have crossed a running shaft to get to the other side of the tractor. Does your PTO shaft have a guard in place? Is it beaten and battered from damage and field use? Entrapments cause death and traumatic injuries to the unfortunate operators who get caught by their clothing trying to unclog a mower or baler.

Making Hay

Haying equipment also causes a great number of injuries and deaths. A baler is capable of taking a small deer or human and running them completely through the baler without clogging. In the mid-90s one of my friends was killed while kicking broken square bales into a round baler. A section of baler twine wrapped around his ankle and pulled him into the running round baler. The entire accident took about three seconds. The baler continued to run for another hour before someone found the tractor and stopped the baler.

Other baler accidents include: finger/hand amputation from belts and chains; PTO entrapment; and needle injuries and impalement on the spring tines. Another set of injuries are specific to the round baler: entrapment in the rear door; belt burns from the rotating compaction belt/chains in older balers; and bales rolling out of the baler onto the operator.

So how can accidents be avoided? The operator should take the time to disengage the PTO and place the brakes on the tractor prior to exiting the operator platform to check on an operational problem or a choke point in the baler pick-up head. With new machinery, there are safety features that will cut the tractor off if you leave the operator platform without placing the tractor in neutral and activating the parking brake.

And when you get the hay to the barn, hay elevators should be treated with the same respect—clothing can become entangled in the chain drive and exposed belts.

Other equipment used in haying can also cause frequent injuries, including sickle bar cutters, hay bines, mowers, rotary cutters or disc mowers. The most common injuries involve the hands and feet of the operators and overturns with attached equipment, often when the operator places his hands or feet in the operational areas of the mower while they are in motion. In North Carolina, this is the second-leading cause of death and injury involving agricultural equipment.


The last implement to consider is the PTO/ground-driven manure spreader, an item found on most equine farms. Accidents range from traumatic injuries involving the PTO, beater bar laceration or amputations, to chain and drag bar entrapment. An additional concern with manure spreader injuries is the exposure to bacteria from fecal matter, which can lead to bacterial infections.

Have A Plan

Here is food for thought: After the machinery attacks, how long will you be trapped until someone checks on you? Someone must be responsible for checking with the operator at regular intervals during the day or night by cell phone, text or radio.

Another major problem I find as I teach farm safety is the lack of preparation of the local first responder (fire/rescue) departments. Many young responders in the urban/rural interface have never operated farm machinery or seen it operate. Therefore, the department might not have the equipment and training needed to free the operator from peril. It is certainly worth contacting your local responders to make sure they understand the equipment on your farm.

When it comes to operating machinery, an ounce of prevention can go a long way. Make sure you and your staff are well versed in machine operating safety (it’s in the manual!) and understand that a shortcut is not worth a potential accident.

Scottie Emerson is the owner of Emerson & Associates in North Carolina. His company Company delivers technical rescue training to fire and rescue departments. They also contract with private companies to provide technical rescue training and hazardous materials operations. He holds associates degrees in Fire Protection Technology and Emergency Medical Science. Emerson teaches farm machinery rescue nationally and internationally.

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