Spending long hours behind a tractor wheel is par for the course on most farms. But could new regulations change all this? Jill Hewitt finds out.

You may not know it, but on 6 July this year, the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations come into full force. This means that anyone who drives a tractor must ensure that whole body vibration (WBV) levels don’t exceed a set limit over an eight-hour period.

What is whole body vibration?

It’s the impact your body receives when you travel on a field or along a track. Or it could be the vibration you feel when working alongside a mill and mix machine. The worst of these shocks are often when you cross headlands but they can also take place at high speed on roads.

The legislation, which comes from a European Directive, sets a baseline exposure action value (EAV) at 0.5m/s2. This is the level of daily exposure to WBV above which you are required to take action.

More important to farmers, however, is the exposure limit value (ELV) of 1.15m/s2, which is the level of WBV that must not be exceeded under the regulations. At this level of vibration, you must take immediate action to reduce exposure.

How will it work in practice?

When news of these regulations first hit the farming industry some years ago, shockwaves went through the farming industry. However, the sector was given an extra four years to comply for higher risk, older machines.

This has given farmers time to modify older kit and for manufacturers to ensure new machines have vibration-reducing measures in place, such as suspended cabs and better seats.

The fear was that drivers’ hours could be severely limited to keep farmers and contractors within the ELV. This would have been devastating during long-hours seasonal work, especially in the summer and autumn.

The good news is that while most field operations are still classified as high risk and likely to exceed the EAVs, it’s expected that, in most cases, simple control measures can be put in place to keep within the ELV without restricting driving time.

Bumping about is part of the job. What’s the problem?

The HSE agrees that exposure to low levels of WBV at work is unlikely on its own to cause back pain. However, you or your staff may be more at risk if you fall into susceptible groups such as older people, those with back or neck problems, young people and pregnant women.

The risk increases when there is a lot of jolting for long periods over many working days. Anyone who has spent a long day rolling hard-baked plough will know the feeling.

When this is interspersed with travelling at speed (especially in a bouncy cab) on the road, there is a real risk of WBV being a contributing factor to back pain problems unless control measures are put in place.

The trouble with back pain is that there are often many causes for it, particularly for anyone who lifts, twists, has bad posture, a poor driving position and repeatedly jumps out of a high cab. Not to mention other non-driving activities, such as lifting heavy bags.

However, this new legislation now makes employers legally responsible for taking measures to protect their employees from WBV. And failing to assess these risks and take action could open the door for a dreaded “no win, no fee” action.

What activities are high risk?

The HSE table below, based on machines manufactured between 2001 and 2005, tells you which activities are likely to be most at risk of exceeding the ELV.

Group 1: WBV unlikely to be a risk

Group 2: You must manage exposure to WBV

Group 3: WBV is a likely cause of back pain

Group 4: You must restrict exposure to WBV

It is unusual for machinery-related tasks in agriculture to fall into this category. Even if machinery is shared among a large workforceand exposure durations are short enough for exposures to be below the EAV, it is highly likely that there will be some exposure tosignificant shocks.

• Combining

• Hedging and ditching

• Self-propelled foragers

• Duties requiring use of power take-off shaft not otherwise listed

• Baling

• Drilling

• Foraging

• Spraying

• Ploughing

• Harrowing

• Primary cultivation (up to 5.5 hours)

• Mowing (up to eight hours)

• Tedding (up to five hours)

• Transport using unsuspended tractors (up to 4.5 hours)

• Transport using tractors with suspended cab or chassis (up to seven hours)

• ATV (up to 5.5 hours)

• Primary cultivation (more than 5.5 hours)

• Mowing (more than eight hours)

• Tedding (more than five hours)

• Transport using unsuspended tractors (more than 4.5 hours)

• Transport using tractors with suspended cab or chassis (more than seven hours)

• ATV (all-terrain vehicle/quad bike) (more than 5.5 hours)

Is this really necessary?

All of this could prompt a few choice swear words, but remember this research was based on machines that are now nine to 13 years old. Also, vibration levels can vary a lot from task to task and day to day, and driving skills, speed, soil types and terrain all have an influence.

Even on the same task, different machines will produce more or less vibration depending on their age and cab suspension. Since this research was done, modern tractor cabs have improved greatly and the HSE says few on-farm activities actually exceed the exposure limits during an average working day.

Do we have to do anything?

Big changes shouldn’t be needed but you need to do the following:

  • Talk to staff to identify areas of high vibration or shock risk
  • Newer tractors are much kinder on their drivers than old ones, so it could be time to pension off any bone-shakers
  • Check seat mechanisms are working well and replace any that are on their last legs
  • Keep tracks well maintained
  • Drive as smoothly as possible, avoid too much bouncing on headland turns and watch your speed
  • Give staff training on smooth driving if necessary
  • Get staff feedback and ensure that, after training, an attendance record is signed and filed
  • Think about basic health monitoring for all machinery operators.

Summary

You may, in exceptional circumstances, need to review the hours your drivers work if you simply cannot control the levels of vibration they are exposed to (for example, working on older machines).

However, the general advice is that as long as you put adequate control measures in place to protect staff, then the level of vibration should not limit the length of the working day.