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Tractor rollover incidents

In January 2021, a farmer died when the tractor he was operating struck a log and rolled. The farmer had been using the tractor to pull out a bogged car and do some spraying. He was thrown from the tractor when it rolled and was trapped underneath the rear mounted chemical tank.

Just a day earlier, two workers suffered significant injuries when the tractor they were using rolled down the side of a hill. The contractors were spraying weeds on a farm.

Safety issues

Tractors and other agricultural mobile plant are essential for a range of rural operations and activities. They are versatile and can have numerous functions, not only on farms, but many other workplaces. Tractors can be safe when operated properly, however, like any equipment, they can be dangerous if used incorrectly.

Operating tractors and other items of agricultural mobile plant on uneven ground, slight and steep slopes, edges of depressions, contour banks or water courses presents rollover dangers, as does towing or pulling loads. Slopes that can be negotiated safely in dry conditions may be unsafe in the wet, as the tractor can slide.

Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) must ensure the provision and maintenance of safe plant. Higher order risk controls include designing plant to be without risks to health and safety. Safety features which should be addressed at the tractor design, manufacture and operational stages that can also be applied to other mobile plant include:

  1. roll-over protective structures (ROPS)
  2. falling object protective structures (FOPS)
  3. guards
  4. protection from noise and ultraviolet radiation exposure
  5. other measures for operator health and safety (e.g. seat belts).

Ways to manage health and safety

Taking steps to manage risks is a condition of doing business in Queensland. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business. If an incident occurs, you'll need to show the regulator you’ve used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by your primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in your place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. It’s a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. You must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.

Possible control measures to prevent similar incidents

  • Replacing an old tractor or other mobile plant without rollover protection with a model that has a factory fitted ROPS or retrofitting existing plant with an approved ROPS where possible. The WHS Regulation 2011 contains regulatory provisions regarding ROPS on tractors that must be complied with.
  • Consultation with the manufacturer or engineer when retrofitting a ROPS.
  • A ROPS is a structure designed and constructed to prevent or minimise the risk of death or injury to the operator as a result of the tractor or other agricultural mobile plant rolling over in any direction.
  • A seat belt also prevents the operator from being ejected during use or a roll-over. Where the tractor or other agricultural mobile plant is fitted with a seatbelt and a ROPS is present, the seatbelt should be worn by the operator. If a seat belt is not being worn, and the tractor rolls, there’s a strong likelihood the operator will be crushed by the tractor.
  • Logbooks should be maintained to record scheduled maintenance and repairs and any modifications which might affect the safe operation of the tractor.
  • Conducting inspections as well as servicing and maintenance in line with the manufacturer's recommendations. For older items of mobile plant where operating instructions are not available, operational procedures and instructions for use should be developed by a competent person. The PCBU must also provide adequate training to all tractor operators, including the development of safe work procedures in line with the manufacturer's instructions for the operation of a tractor or other agricultural mobile plant.
  • Assess the environment the plant will be operating in for potential hazards such as gradient and terrain and determine if the plant is appropriate for the task.

For hazards similar to these particular incidents, PCBUs must first consider controls that most effectively eliminate the risk or, where not reasonably practicable, that minimise the risks. Hazards such as the uncontrolled movement of mobile plant and risks brought about by poor systems of work may also be minimised by implementing administrative controls, so far as is reasonably practicable. A safe system of work can include:

  • Driving tractors and other agricultural mobile plant at speeds slow enough to keep control over unexpected hazards. Operators should watch out for ditches, embankments, and depressions – unstable banks can cause overturns.
  • Never allowing people to ride on tractor carryalls.
  • Being aware that loads with high centres of gravity and tanks carrying liquids make a tractor less stable – a tank partially full of liquid will cause the load to shift quickly as the liquid sloshes around the tank.
  • Not driving on gradients in wet conditions where there is high risk of overturning caused by the tractor sliding or its wheels sinking into the ground.
  • Only towing a load, or attempting to pull a tree stump, using the designated tow point that is lower than the rear axle height. Using a tow point higher than the rear axle height can cause the tractor to backflip.
  • Reducing speed before turning or applying turning brakes. Where a differential lock and turning brakes are fitted, ensure the differential lock is disengaged, and the turning brakes are locked together before travelling from one work site to another.
  • Descending slopes cautiously with the tractor or other agricultural mobile plant in low gear.
  • When a tractor is bogged in mud or in a ditch, drive out in reverse gear. Logs and planks should only be used behind the rear wheels to increase traction, as using logs and planks in front of the rear wheels increases the chance of the wheels locking which can cause the tractor to backflip.
  • Only climb on or off a tractor or other agricultural mobile plant that is stopped. Do not dismount while the engine is running unless the transmission is in the neutral or park position and the parking brake is effectively engaged.
  • If towing a trailer, ensure the load is evenly balanced and well secured. Always operate the vehicle at low speed.

If you are working in a remote area or working alone, always let someone know where you are going and when you are expected back. Also, make sure good communications are in place – for example, assessing mobile phone coverage and using personal two-way radios.

More information

Have you been affected by a workplace fatality, illness or serious injury?

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