It’s widely reported that tractor accidents account for an estimated 130 deaths each year. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to learn that agricultural workplaces have the highest rate of death due to work-related injuries. What may be surprising, however, is that these deaths are in many cases preventable. Most deaths occur when the tractor operator falls or is thrown from a tractor after the tractor tips up or completely overturns. Injury and death caused by tractor falls could be minimized or eliminated if all tractors are equipped with needed safety devices such as seatbelts, rollbars, deadman switches and rotary mower guards. Yet, even after decades of research and lots of litigation pointing to the need for these safety devices, many tractor manufacturers remain reluctant to incorporate and promote the use of these devices into their tractor designs.
Seatbelts were not installed on tractors as standard equipment until 1985. In 1986, the National Safety Council found that less than one-third of tractors in use were equipped with seatbelts. Even today – almost 30 years after seatbelts became standard – tractor manufacturers are not actively promoting the use of seatbelts. Many tractor advertisements feature operators who are not using their seatbelts. Despite warnings on tractors suggesting the use of seatbelts, many operators forego the use of seatbelts in favor of less restriction.
Rollbars are definitely needed on all tractors as a part of the ROPs protection system. Greg Allen and I tried a case that got a great deal of attention back in the early 1980s against Kubota Tractor Company. We were able to prove a very strong case against the company and showed the need for rollbars on tractors to save lives. After that case, Kubota charged its safety policy and added rollbars to its tractors.
Due to minimal seatbelt usage, it’s imperative that tractor manufacturers incorporate other safety devices, such as rollbars, deadman switches and rotary mower guards to prevent injury or death in case of a fall. If an operator is not using a seatbelt, a deadman switch will cut off all power to the tractor once it senses that the operator has left the tractor seat. Of course, rollbars will also protect the operator in the event of a rollover. In addition, a rotary mower guard will minimize injuries from a tractor fall by protecting the occupant from being run over by the trailing mower.
Seatbelts alone are not sufficient in protecting tractor occupants from injury and death just as seatbelts alone are not sufficient in protecting car occupants from injury and death. The automobile industry recognizes that passive safety devices, such as airbags, are necessary to protect car occupants from foreseeable accidents because an active safety device, such as a seatbelt, is dependent on the occupant’s choice to utilize it.
Tractor manufacturers must, in addition to employing seat belts, recognize the need for passive safety devices, such as rollbars, deadman switches and rotary mower guards. These will protect the tractor operators even if they choose not to protect themselves by wearing a seatbelt. If you need more information on this subject, contact Greg Allen, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury/Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com.
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