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A tractor has rolled causing fatal crush injuries to operator

In a recent incident, the operator of a tractor has sustained fatal crush injuries when the tractor rolled. Initial enquiries have revealed that the tractor being operated had a foldaway rollover protective structure that was folded in half at the time the tractor rolled. It seems that the operator was attempting to execute a right hand turn on an apparent 20 degree slope causing the tractor to roll.

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.

Tractor operators are most at risk of injury when:

  • the tractor does not have a functioning roll over protection structure
  • the operator does not wear a fitted seatbelt
  • the equipment is poorly maintained
  • working on uneven terrain or rough, slick and muddy surfaces
  • towing or pulling objects or loads
  • travelling through pastures where high vegetation obscures stumps and/or potholes
  • working near dams, ditches, irrigation channels, embankments or over-hanging structures
  • travelling at high speeds (e.g. on roads)
  • distracted for e.g. using phones or other mobile devices while operating the tractor.

Ways to manage health and safety

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 that 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

Incidents occur when risks aren't properly assessed and controlled. Some possible control measures include:

  • a rollover protective structure (ROPS) must be used correctly and fitted to the tractor in accordance with s.216 Roll-over protection on tractors of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011
    • ROPS must comply with the design and testing requirements specified in AS1636.1-1996 Tractors – Roll-over protective structures – Criteria and tests or an equivalent standard.
    • A folding ROPS must be unfolded and securely locked open to be effective.
    • 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 rolling over.
  • 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 tractors 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.
  • assess the environment the tractor will be operating in for potential hazards such as gradient and terrain and determine if the plant is appropriate for the task
  • driving tractors at speeds slow enough to keep control over unexpected hazards
    • Operators should watch out for ditches, embankments, and depressions – unstable banks can cause overturns.
  • 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 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 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
  • when operating a tractor at night or in low light conditions ensure the tractor is fitted with effective lighting (e.g. headlights, work lights at the rear of the tractor, etc).
  • if the tractor is fitted with a front-end load or any other implement ensure they are lowered as low as possible while travelling over rough or sloping terrain.

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 two-way radios.

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