Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program
Farmer Killed in Tractor Rollover While Setting a Fence Post
During the fall of 2003 a 60-year-old farmer was killed in a tractor rollover while putting in a fence post on his farm. He was working with his son, using the front bucket of his tractor to push a wooden fence post into the ground. The men were working in an area of pasture which had a slight slope to the right front of the tractor. The son was holding the 6-inch post upright, while his father on the tractor positioned the front bucket, half-filled with dirt, on top of the post. They were using the hydraulics of the tractor to push and/or ram the post into the ground, a procedure successfully completed with “thousands of fence posts” on their farm without apparent problems. However, that day the ground was fairly dry, and the post did not penetrate the soil more than six inches. Suddenly, the bucket slipped off the post, and the bucket snapped downward with sufficient force and momentum that it caused the rear of the tractor to lift up. The wide-front tractor then rolled over on its right side down the slope, stopping momentarily, then continuing to roll until it had righted itself again, as seen in Photo 1. The farmer was fatally crushed as the tractor rolled over, and was found on the ground to the left of the machine. There was no ROPS on the tractor.
Recommendations based on our investigation are as follows:
During the fall of 2004, a 60-year-old farmer was killed while operating a tractor in his pasture. The Iowa FACE Program was notified of this incident a few days later, and began an investigation. Information was gathered from the county sheriff, the state medical examiner, newspapers, and the victim’s son, who was an eyewitness of the event. Photographs were also obtained from the county sheriff.
The victim had been a full-time farmer for the past 35 years, and lived on a 140-acre farm, growing corn, beans, and hay. He also had 140 milk cows and raised an additional 200 head of cattle. The man farmed with his three sons, and occasionally hired part-time laborers when needed. The farmer was working with one of his sons on the day of his death.
This small family farm did not have any safety program or written policies in place, which is typical for many small family-owned businesses. Family members grew up in the business and were well informed of safety issues and hazardous areas around the farmyard. Safety issues were discussed on a need-to-know basis and were job-specific. All men working on this farm were very familiar with the equipment and were experienced handling many types of farm machinery.
At this farm there was a washout in a fence line that needed to be repaired. The farmer and his son drove a tractor to the area with a new wooden fence post, 5-6 inches in diameter and seven feet long. Their normal procedure was to use the elevated front bucket of the tractor to push or ram the fence posts into the ground. They had done this “1000s of times without any problem.” The bucket was partially filled with dirt, then, raised over the post, which was held in place while the bucket was forced down on its top, pushing or pounding the post into the soft ground.
The tractor used was a wide-front Massey Ferguson, model 274, with 4-wheel drive, which the farmer had bought new 15-20 years ago, equipped at that time with a factory-installed front end loader. This loader did have hydraulic power-down ability. For as long as the son could remember, this tractor did not have a ROPS (Roll Over Protective Structure), and the son was not sure when the ROPS had been removed. The tractor was used to clean sheds which had a low ceiling, and the ROPS was too tall for several of these areas. The farmer also had a skid-steer loader, but preferred to use his tractor to clean these areas. Also, the ROPS made it difficult to get around in timber, and it was evidently removed by the farmer many years ago.
The farmer partially filled the front bucket with dirt, then, positioned the tractor to put in the fence post, working in a pasture area, which sloped slightly to the right (see Photos 1, 2). As usual, the farmer was operating the tractor, while his son assisted by positioning the fence post. The middle of the front bucket was placed on top of the post, then, the post was pushed or rammed into the ground. But the soil in the area was rather dry that day, and the post could penetrate no more than six inches.
The men were unsuccessful and ready to quit, when suddenly, as the bucket was being forced down, the bucket apparently slipped off the post, and the heavy bucket, under hydraulic pressure, snapped in a downward direction. This momentum was sufficient enough to pop up the rear of the tractor, which, in combination with the slope in the area, caused the tractor to rollover to its right side. The tractor rolled completely upside down, then almost stopped, then continued to roll further to upright itself on its wheels, as seen in Photo 1. When the tractor first rolled, the farmer was crushed in the chest area by the frame for the front-end loader. He was not pinned by the tractor, but received fatal internal injuries, and was declared dead when taken to a local hospital.
Cause of Death
The official cause of death from the medical examiners report was, “blunt force injuries to chest due to tractor rollover.” An autopsy confirmed these findings.
Recommendation #1: All tractors should be equipped with Roll Over Protective Structures.
Discussion: Using Roll Over Protective Structures (ROPS) is a proven method of reducing deaths from tractor overturns. All tractors manufactured in the USA after 1986 have factory-installed ROPS, but about half of tractors in the United States still do not have ROPS. For the majority of functioning older tractors, ROPS are available at fairly reasonable cost, yet some tractors do not have any options for adding a ROPS.1 Risk factors for overturns include using a front-end loader, narrow front (tricycle design), and using the tractor for mowing on sloping ground. In fact, any type of tractor activity on sloping ground is hazardous, and tractor operators must always be alert.
Tractor owners / operators cannot anticipate every hazardous situation that may arise in a typical workday. Even in the best of circumstances, the unexpected can, and does happen, and workers are often injured when caught off guard. The victim in this case was using a very familiar tractor in a very familiar setting, apparently fully aware of the slopes and overturn risks on his farm. Placing fence posts with a tractor was never thought to be a hazardous activity, and the rebound downward force of the heavy bucket was completely unexpected, and probably unimaginable. These facts underscore the importance of Roll-Over Protective Structures, for if this tractor had a ROPS installed, it would have prevented a complete rollover, and likely saved this man’s life.