Accessing tractor rollover risk

Colleen Kottke Associate Editor
Now Media Group

The headlines are heartbreaking.

'Elderly farmer killed when 1950s Farmall tractor rolls over while he was mowing grass on a steep hill' or 'Teen crushed by his grandfather's tractor after it tips over on soft shoulder of rural road.'

The common thread? Those and many more tractor rollover deaths could very well have been prevented had machine been equipped with a ROPS (rollover protective structures) and the operator wearing a seat belt.

According to the National Coalition for Agricultural Safety and Health, tractor accidents have been identified as the leading cause of deaths and disabling injuries on farms. Tractor rollovers account for half of the tractor fatalities while runovers account for 25 percent.

At least 53 people in Wisconsin died from tractor rollovers from 2001 to 2012, said Cheryl Skjolaas, Ag safety specialist with UW Extension. Rollovers typically claim the lives of 96 farmers across the U.S. each year, according to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Most of these deaths could be prevented if tractors were equipped with ROPS and seat belts and passengers were not allowed on tractors. A ROPS is comprised of two posted, squared structural frames around a tractor operator, which can provide a protective area in the event of a rollover.

However, only about one-third of tractors on U.S. farms are equipped with such protective structures, according to National Ag Safety Database.

Reasons why

Despite research that shows that ROPS could save lives, the use remains inconsistent.

Over half of the tractors in use on U.S. farms were manufactured before implementation of the voluntary regulation requiring ROPS on tractors as a standard feature in the 80s.

'A lot of these older tractors are still in use. In Wisconsin, we estimate that there are more than 100,000 tractors without ROPS,' said Barbara Marlenga of the National Farm Medicine Center at the Marshfield Clinic. 'In Scandinavian countries where ROPS are mandated on all tractors, they have virtually eliminated fatalities from rollovers.'


The estimated cost of retrofitting a tractor with ROPS runs from $198 up to $2750 for an average of around $1,200. However, the cost of to make an old tractor safer may persuade some farmers to do without.

'My uncle had a 1950s Farmall tractor with the small tires in the front. We were always afraid to drive it because it seemed too unstable,' said Sharon Smith of Wausau. 'He still uses it today to do odd jobs on the farm and says it isn't worth the money for such an old tractor.'

Three years ago, the National Farm Medicine Center began offering up to 70 percent of the cost of purchasing and installing the ROPS and seatbelt up to $865 maximum. The rebate program is funded by donations to the Auction of Champions, an annual fundraiser hosted in Marshfield to raise money for farm safety.

Since 2013, Marlenga says 150 farmers have retrofitted their tractors.

'The messages that trigger them into action are the 70 percent rebate, testimonials from other farmers and marketing ads that promote ROPS to protect their children, grandchildren or young workers,' Marlenga said.


In a national study, only 12 percent of farmers surveyed were willing to pay for full retrofits while 10 percent would consider retrofits with incentives. Forty percent said they would not accept retrofits even at no personal cost.

Skjolaas said that risk perception plays a large role in personal choices.

'Will they invest in the ROPS for a tractor they use for only one task? There's a management decision that is influenced by their personal sense of risk,' Skjolaas said. 'Are there other areas that they see as greater hazards and risks rather than having ROPS? A lot of tractors will never see ROPS installed on them.'

Others feel their skills may offset any dangers posed by the tractor.

'Because his tractor was little, my uncle felt he could handle any challenge it presented, even when it nearly tipped over while he was trying to pull out a stump,' White said.

White's uncle was lucky; rollovers often occur when tractors with high centers of gravity and rear-wheel drive are used on uneven terrain. When tipping, tractors will reach the tipping point of no return in about 0.75 seconds, giving the operator virtually no reaction time.

'In talking with farmers, they say they have to get on and off the tractors frequently and that is why they don't use the seat belts,' Marlenga said.

When used in conjunction with a seat belt, ROPS are 99 percent effective in preventing death or serious injury in a tractor overturn, according to the National Institution for Occupational Safety and Health.

Personal choices

Skjolaas said long held attitudes towards risk and safety is something she struggles with each day on the job.

'We have such a culture within agriculture that sometimes it's hard to get that message across. If a youth that has been taught in school about wearing a seat belt or having a shield in place on the PTO and sees that isn't supported at home it takes awhile to make progress,' she said. 'It's about educating them and helping them to see where the hazards are and what is the risk and making that personal choice about preventing accidents.'