We all know the most important safety feature on a tractor is you, the operator. In fact, drivers are so important for safety, Cal OSHA created a rule requiring an operator at the controls whenever tractors or other mobile farming equipment is moving in the field.
This rule is designed to prevent the “driverless tractor,” a situation where the driver hops off a tractor while it is in motion in order to assist field workers. This action leaves the tractor unguided by a human hand or head. Unguided, moving tractors are dangerous. Workers, children, or animals could be killed if they fall in front of or under an unmanned tractor.
Exceptions to this rule do allow the driver to control the tractor from an area other than the cab seat as long as the controls for starting, accelerating, decelerating, and stopping are provided (e.g. seedling planter). If the tractor operates faster than two miles per hour (mph) or requires guidance other than that from ground or furrow, steering controls also have to be provided outside the cab. Operators can walk alongside furrow-guided, self-propelled equipment as long as they are within 10 feet and have a clear view ahead and of nearby workers.
Some tractors are equipped with GPS guidance and computer control systems. While this helps make the work more efficient, tractor drivers are still required to follow basic safety rules. Never sit on a tractor without a proper seat and seatbelt. Don’t allow riders unless there is an extra seat and safety belt. Rollover protection systems (ROPS) protect you from being crushed in a rollover or flip. Guard all moving and cutting parts. Don’t reach into moving parts, clear jams, or do maintenance until the tractor is turned off and machinery is unhooked from power.
GPS and computer controls can help tractors precisely navigate along field rows and turn efficiently in the headlands (open end of the crop field). The computer can control tractor speeds, turning radius, and the lifting and lowering of implements. These tractors can operate longer hours and at higher speeds despite darkness, fog, and weather. Drivers operating automated tractors and agricultural workers around them need training on their features.
Just because the tractor can go all day does not mean that the operator should. Limit work shifts to maintain a state of alertness. Tractors will not sense someone or something in the field, so use enough lighting to see 50 feet in front of the machine and provide an additional light in the back when operating before sunrise or after sunset. Post warning signs of automated tractor use in fields and consider fencing to limit access. Machines that can run most of the day require more frequent inspections and maintenance checks.
Tractor technology is still changing; the computer controlled tractors of today could soon be the completely autonomous machines of tomorrow. But whatever the generation of tractor, properly trained and alert operators that follow safe work practices will always be important to tractor safety.