7 June 2002

Maintain brakes and avoid injury

Poor maintenance of

braking systems on tractors

and other agricultural

vehicles is costing farmers

dearly in both fatalities and

injuries. Peter Hill kicks off

this Transport Special with

a closer look at this

avoidable problem

PAYING more attention to brake servicing and repair could have a big impact on agricultural industry accidents, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

The organisations statistics show that accidents involving tractors and loaders such as telescopic handlers cause the greatest number of farm fatalities, with a large proportion of such accidents being caused by faulty, poorly maintained or inadequately serviced brakes.

Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to improve the braking performance of tractors and other farm vehicles, in line with their increasing size, weight and speed capability, not to mention the recognition that many such vehicles spend an increasing amount of their time on the road.

But brakes can only perform as well as their designers intended if they are used as intended and are properly maintained.

Some significant shortcomings were highlighted by an HSE inspection campaign staged with local police forces in parts of Britain a couple of years ago. This involved stopping and inspecting agricultural vehicles being driven on the road, to see whether they complied with the relevant regulations.

While most were up to scratch, the campaign revealed many cases of tractors pulling trailers on which the braking system either did not work properly or had not been connected to the tractor. Some 18% of those stopped were instructed to put right identified defects, and the majority of those related to a lack of proper maintenance.

It seems extraordinary that a system with such a fundamental role should be neglected to any extent. But, of course, familiarity and busy work schedules mean regular servicing is all too easily postponed or overlooked.

As with so many safety-related issues, individuals get away with it 90% of the time and even the occasional near miss is not always enough to overcome complacency.

Yet HSE fatal accident reports regularly contain descriptions of run away tractor incidents, which result from handbrake systems that will not hold the vehicle on anything but a modest slope, or footbrakes that are not up to the task.

And when things go wrong with brakes, the consequences can be dire. Last year, inadequate brakes led to the deaths of five farmers and farm employees:

&#8226 A 53-year-old farmer in Wales was run over by a tractor being driven by a friend down a steep, wet slope. Although tests showed that the tractor and brakes were in good working condition, there was excessive brake pedal travel, which both the driver and farmer knew about.

&#8226 A 73-year-old farmer in Wales was found trapped beneath the rear wheel of his tractor. He had stopped on a slope to carry out some maintenance on a mower and had applied the handbrake. Tests found it to be defective, allowing the tractor to roll back.

&#8226 In the south-west of England, a 43-year-old farm manager died from head injuries sustained when he jumped from a run-away telescopic handler. The brakes on the borrowed machine had just been serviced but one of the brake pipes had been left unconnected. The driver had commented on the poor braking performance and, while driving down a slight slope, the vehicle started to run away.

&#8226 A defective handbrake was found on a tractor that crushed its 67-year-old driver, who farmed in Yorkshire. He had been baling and stopped on a slope to clear a blockage. The handbrake had been applied but efforts to remove the blockage seem to have caused the tractor to roll back and a rear wheel crushed him.

&#8226 A 46-year-old farmer in Scotland was killed when the telescopic handler he was working with rolled forward and crushed him against the stone wall of a trough. He was throwing weeds pulled from around the trough into the handlers bucket, and the machines engine was stopped and handbrake applied. However, it turned out to be incorrectly adjusted and was unable to hold the machine on a slope of 10í or more. Farm workers said they were unaware of the fault because the machine was usually parked on level ground.

This is surely too heavy a price to pay for the lack of routine checks on brake performance, and regular servicing to keep vehicles brakes in tip-top condition. &#42

Other agricultural vehicles deserving of regular brake checks and maintenance include telescopic handlers. They clock up a lot of hours, often in arduous conditions, and often work in close proximity to people other than the driver.

Manufacturers have designed tractor and trailer brakes to be very effective at slowing the vehicle and holding it firmly when parked on a slope. But such reassuring performance will soon be lost if the brakes are not routinely and properly maintained.