Farm health and safety: Farm and work vehicles

On average, about a quarter of all the workers killed on farms are involved with moving vehicles. All these people had families, friends and businesses that also suffered grief and loss as a result.

Be sure to follow four simple steps to safeguard your safety:

  • Safe vehicle, safe site, safe driver.
  • Safe stop, ­ the most important safety action of all.
  • Safe on-road, safe off-road, ­ the standards of vehicle maintenance for both is the same. 
  • Check those brakes, especially handbrakes and on trailers.

See also: Tractors on the road: Rights, wrongs, rules and regulations

Manage the risk

So what can be done to reduce the number of transport accidents? First, it is worth stating that this is an industry-wide problem.

The Health and Safety Executive provides guidance, inspection and enforcement. But at the end of the day it is the people working in the industry who are best placed to take action to reduce the risks.

Transport in agriculture covers the whole range of activities relating to vehicle movement, from gathering sheep with a quad bike (ATV) to a complex vegetable harvesting and packing operation.

But all tasks involve a combination of three factors: Vehicle, site and driver. Breaking it down in this way makes it easier to identify problems and take action.

Safe vehicle

When it comes to standards of maintenance, there is a gulf between the best and worst. Research into the mechanical condition of agricultural vehicles simply concludes that they need to be better maintained.

It is a legal requirement that all vehicles are maintained in effective working order and this applies both on and off road. This has led to some useful joint working between the HSE and the Department for Transport.

A statutory scheme of examination is unlikely, so the challenge is to find ways of increasing voluntary action.

It is worth pointing out that although the total number of defects found was high, and some might be considered insignificant, some of the individual failures do give cause for concern. For example, 12% of tractors inspected had defective handbrakes.

The importance of an effective handbrake cannot be stressed too strongly. It is easy to carry out a simple handbrake check and this should be done regularly to make sure it is working and you can detect when it needs adjustment.

Handbrake check

This is simple ­ but how often do you do it?

  • Drive tractor onto one-in-five (20%) gradient slope.
  • Apply brake. You should feel resistance at about one-third of the lever travel and the brake should be fully applied at about two-thirds with a force not exceeding 40kg.
  • The handbook will often state how many ratchet clicks apply.
  • The ratchet should hold the lever in place.
  • The tractor should not move.

Remember: The handbrake is only designed to hold the tractor and the weight it carries, not a fully-laden trailer.

Trailer braking

Trailers need good brakes, too. As speeds and weights increase, there is a huge increase in kinetic energy, and if trailers are not doing their fair share of the work, all the heat and energy produced has to be handled by the tractor brakes.

There is a general lack of understanding of tractor and trailer brake issues and as tractor speeds and loads increase, there is increasing potential for accidents.

In the next two or three years, EC directives will require new trailers to be type approved and have higher braking efficiencies, failsafe systems and tractor-operated parking brakes.

See more on Trailer safety, tractor speed and licences

Safe site

This is often the most difficult aspect to deal with. On farms there is not just the yard to contend with, but also the land activity.

You can’t take away the hills and slopes on which you operate, but you can make that activity safer by ensuring you have the right skills and equipment to work safely.

Knowing the safe limits of your land, your machine and yourself is a hard-won skill, so use your expertise and don’t take chances.

Vehicle overturns figure highly in the accident statistics. Safety cabs have gone a long way to preventing a number of fatalities, but most of the recent accidents involve the driver being ejected from the cab. Fitting and wearing a seatbelt would prevent some of these.

In and around the farmyard, you can:

  • Keep vehicles and pedestrians (especially children) separate.
  • Enforce the use of high-visibility clothing.
  • Minimise reversing and make full use of mirrors, horns and reversing aids ­ crucial with equipment such as telescopic handlers.
  • Control speeds and use one-way systems at busy times.
  • Make sure loading and unloading areas are well-lit and obstruction-free.
  • Park across slopes if you have to stop or unload (not forgetting to fully apply the handbrake.

Collections and deliveries by visiting drivers also need to be done safely.

If you are loading or unloading the vehicle, make sure the driver is out of the way,  preferably in the cab. HGVs need more room to manoeuvre ­ obvious, but a common cause of complaint and accidents.

Safe driver

“Are you safe?” is the question to ask yourself. Have you had adequate training and know how to operate the vehicle safely?

  • Wear suitable clothing and footwear.
  • Get in and out of the cab in a safe way.
  • Check around before starting and moving off.
  • Hitch equipment safely.

Carry passengers (never children under 13 years) in a safe way.

Quad bike ATVs

ATVs are becoming ever more popular ­ on farms and in HSE accident statistics. A common cause of death involving an ATV is head injury, so always wear a helmet. It is not a legal requirement in England Wales and Scotland but it is in Northern Ireland.

The long seat on a quad bike is not for carrying passengers, it is so that the driver can shift their body weight for different slope conditions.

You can only carry a passenger if the quad bike has been designed to do so and has the right number of seats.

It is illegal to carry a child as a passenger and will impair your ability to control the vehicle.

Children under 13 must not use an ATV at work and over 13s can only do so after formal training on a low power ATV.

Side-by-side utility ATVs

These vehicles have conventional sit-in seats with a steering wheel and pedals.  They may have a second row of seats and usually have a rear cargo deck or bed allowing goods to be carried.  Although the driver does not need to use active riding techniques to ensure stability the correct distribution of weight is still important.

To help reduce the risks follow the general guidance for quad bikes stated above but also:

  • Always select a machine fitted with a Roll Over Protective Structure (ROPS).
  • In addition to ROPS, the driver and passengers should wear lap belts/seat restraints to prevent them being thrown out in the event of an accident or overturn.
  • The legal requirements for training are the same as for Quad bikes.

Source: HSE All-terrain vehicles (ATVs), Quad bikes and side-by-side utility vehicles

Health issues

It is easy to focus on safety when thinking about transport, but there are health issues that need to be considered. These are often long-term problems, but can still be debilitating.

Noise and dust are the most obvious and the best control is to get the right cab and ensure it is maintained properly. A quiet and filtered cab is no use if half the windows are broken.

Other health problems may be less obvious ­ such as bad legs and hips. Think about the long-term damage you can do by jumping into and out of the tractor each day. Just ask an older worker why they don’t jump down from the cab any more.

Or how about that aching back when you have had a few hours carting grain?

Whole-body vibration (WBV) is a new and emerging factor that may not always cause a back problem, but it will certainly aggravate any damage you have already done.

Ensuring the seat is properly maintained and adjusted is the first step, but you will need to look at other aspects, such as driving style and track maintenance to minimise your potential exposure.

The HSE has done considerable research on the subject. What is clear is that agriculture has one of the highest exposures of any industry. Read more about WBV and employers’ legal obligations on the HSE website.

More information

See the Health and Safety Executive website on farm vehicle safety.