30 November 2001

Driving limits may bring claims for compensation

By Mike Williams

SHELVED EC proposals to limit the number of hours a tractor driver can work each day to limit exposure to harmful vibration, could have wider implications should they be implemented.

It could result in a flood of claims for personal injury compensation.

Claims would come from drivers of tractors and other farm equipment seeking compensation for health problems, such as back disorders allegedly caused by long-term exposure to high levels of vibration. This legal action could be taken against their employers, tractor manufacturers or both.

The HSE, which is advising the government on its policy towards Europes "whole body vibration" legislation, concedes that rules aimed at reducing health risks by limiting the number of tractor driving hours might make compensation claims easier to establish.

"I think we may see a flood of claims, with some solicitors taking out advertisements offering to act on behalf of tractor drivers who might be able to claim compensation," says David Butters, HSE tractor specialist. "Some claims could be against the farmer who employs them, but I think the majority would be against the tractor manufacturer, and this is already causing great concern in the industry."

Under the EC proposals, hours at the wheel for both employed and self-employed drivers could be reduced to as little as 30min a day for some jobs involving fast travel speeds over rough ground, and grain carting and grass mowing could both qualify for strict limits. Vibration levels for slow-speed jobs such as ploughing and combine harvesting are so low that hours would probably be unlimited.

The proposals should have been approved by EC ministers in Brussels last month, but instead they were sent back for revision after objections by a group of countries led by the UK. The UK view, based on HSE advice, is that more factual evidence is needed before regulations of this type are introduced.

"Limiting the number of driving hours will have a profound effect on the farming industry, and we want to make sure the regulations are reasonable and are based on factual information," says Mr Butter.

"There is certainly a lot of evidence linking back problems to tractor driving, but most of it is circumstantial and we cant be sure how much of the problem is actually due to vibration. Many tractor drivers also do heavy lifting jobs on the farm, which can also cause back problems, and in some cases the problems may be aggravated by having to reach badly positioned controls.

"Another problem is that some of the evidence on vibration levels has come from test track work, but this is of limited value and we are financing work by Silsoe Research Institute to measure the levels of vibration drivers actually experience on farms. We also know vibration levels are higher on small, lightweight tractors, but the original proposals did not differentiate between small and large tractors."

Rejection of the original proposals means a revised version is unlikely to be available for approval before next spring, and there would then be a three-year consultation period before the regulations take effect, according to the HSEs Brian Coles, who is involved in the Brussels negotiations.

"In the early stages Britain was the only country objecting to the proposals," points out Mr Coles. "And there were also some countries wanting stricter proposals. But we gained support and this means we have more time for amendments." &#42