Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program
Man, 29, Died when Tractor with Front-end Loader Full of Rocks Overturned
Mid-spring 2005, a 29-year-old man died when the tractor he was operating overturned upside down pinning him underneath (Photo 1). The 40-year-old tractor had a narrow (tricycle) front axle. It did not have a rollover protective structure (ROPS). A front-end loader was attached to the tractor’s frame but no counter-weights had been installed for ballast. The loader with its bucket full of rocks was raised to nearly hood height. The tractor leaned to the right as the man steered it forward at a slight upward angle on a slope. The position of the heavy load, the absence of ballast, the tractor’s configuration, the dynamics of the tractor-loader combination and its load in transport on the sloping, uneven terrain contributed to the sudden overturn of this tractor. ROPS and use of the seat belt would likely have prevented this man’s death.
RECOMMENDATIONS based on our investigation are as follows:
Iowa FACE personnel became aware of this tractor overturn incident through newspaper accounts two days after it occurred. A FACE case investigation was initiated and additional information was gathered from the County Sheriff and Medical Examiner. An Iowa FACE Investigator conducted an onsite interview with the victim’s parents during the summer of 2006.
During the spring of 2005, a 29-year-old man and his spouse returned to his hometown for a weekend stay with his parents. While there they planned to do some repair work on the fence around their own 12 acre (4.9 ha) piece of land and to assist his parents with a landscaping project. The victim died when a tractor without a ROPS and its front-end loader full of rocks overturned upside down in a corn stubble field adjacent to his property.
The victim’s parent’s had a small acreage, about 7 acres (2.8 ha), at the edge of town. The son had experience farming while growing up in this rural setting. He spent summertime working on farms run by his uncles. He operated tractors and equipment while working for local farmers and in more recent jobs off the farm. Since high school he had continued his formal training, led construction projects, and performed machine design development work in the farm equipment manufacturing industry.
The tractor this man was operating when it overturned was his parent’s 90 horsepower (70 kw) tractor manufactured during the period from 1963 through 1967. His father had purchased it used from a private party the previous fall. The tractor had a narrow front axle. Its rear wheel spacing was adjusted to match standard row crop widths. A front-end loader was attached to the tractor’s frame. There was no ROPS or cab on the tractor. There was no fluid in the rear wheels, no weights added to the wheels or axles, and there was no ballast box on the rear hitch.
The young man and his wife loaded what was needed to repair the fence into the back of their sport utility vehicle (SUV). His mother had started out ahead of them on the tractor. The tractor and loader were to be used to carry rocks back from the son’s property for the landscaping project in his parent’s yard. The SUV caught up to the tractor as they arrived at the property. The victim had purchased, cleared, and fenced it before renting it to local cattlemen for income.
There was a driveway from the road into the old farmyard and a field approach into the neighbor’s property a short distance further west. The west fence line for the victim’s property ran south, perpendicular to the gravel road between the driveways, then east at a gate (Photo 2). The rocks for landscaping were in the fencerow near the gate. The neighbor’s land along the west fence and near the gate sloped toward the southwest.
The tractor was moved into
position outside the gate in
the farmyard fence and its
loader bucket lowered to
the ground. The victim
loaded rocks into the
bucket. Too little weight on
the rear axle resulted in
poor traction. The weight of
the rocks and lack of
counter- weight on the
tractor in combination with
the terrain made it difficult
to move the tractor on a
direct path back north
toward the gravel road.
The victim headed the tractor and its raised load of rocks in a northwesterly direction down and across the slope toward the road in search of another field approach at which to get onto the road. The light rear end of the tractor shifted and slipped as it crossed the ridges in the corn stubble field.
Unable to find a second field approach, he turned and headed the tractor east toward his originally-intended exit. The tractor wheels tracked between the rows that ran parallel to the road as it moved forward diagonally up the slope. The slope caused the tractor to lean a bit to the right. The victim steered it into an unfarmed area of grass, perhaps for better traction. The tractor tipped to the right pitching the operator off ahead of the overturning tractor then pinning him with his back to the ground beneath the tractor’s left rear fender.
The overturn was not witnessed. The SUV had been parked inside the farmyard, on the opposite side of the gate from where the tractor was positioned to pick up its load of rocks. The man’s mother and his wife were in the SUV exiting from the yard when they saw the rear wheels of the upside down tractor spinning in the air. They jumped out of the SUV and ran to the site. The tractor’s throttle lever was wedged against the ground and could not be moved to shut off the tractor’s engine. The ignition key was turned to the off position and the tractor engine stopped running soon afterward. They went to the nearby farm, telephoned for help, then returned to the scene.
The loader bucket was raised to where the center of its load was about the height of the tractor’s hood. This position of an uneven, heavy load in combination with sloping and changing terrain, the absence of counterweight for ballast, the configuration of the tractor (narrow front and row-crop width rear wheel spacing), and the dynamic movements of the tractor, loader, and load in transport contributed to the overturn of this tractor. ROPS with seat belt use would likely have saved this man’s life.
Cause of Death
Recommendation #1 - Agricultural tractors should be equipped with a rollover protective structure (ROPS) and the seat belt should be used, except with foldable or retractable ROPS in their down or retracted position.
Discussion: ROPS are known to be highly effective in preventing deaths in overturns of tractors. Agricultural tractors offered for sale in the U.S. since 1986 have ROPS plus ROPS are commercially available from either the tractor manufacturer or from aftermarket suppliers for tractors built since 1970, and for some makes and models built before 1970. Nonetheless, about half of the tractors in productive use nationally today do not have a ROPS and seat belt installed on them (Myers and Synder, 1995). Research suggests that narrow front (tricycle) configuration, using a front-end loader, and moving over rough or sloping ground are significant risk factors in tractor overturns (Johnson and Rautiainen). The tractor in this incident was a mid-1960’s model with tricycle front axle equipped with a front-end loader being operated on a slope. While not originally marketed with ROPS, an aftermarket ROPS certified as meeting applicable standards (ASABE, 2004) can be purchased for the tractor involved in this overturn. Low clearance and orchard/vineyard uses have led to the development of foldable and retractable ROPS. Operators should follow instructions in the tractor operator’s manual regarding the use of a seat belt when their foldable or retractable ROPS is in the down or retracted position (AEM, 1990).
Recommendation #2 - ROPS should be designed and readily available for all makes and models of agricultural tractors in common use.
Many tractors like the one in this overturn incident continue to be used without ROPS. Even for tractors that are not among the most common models in current use there is often a ROPS available for a family of models that is designed and certified for it too. Efforts by manufacturers, dealers, and others regarding the importance of installing ROPS should continue to be persuasive and keep awareness of ROPS availability high.