Take Tractor Safety Seriously

Proper maintenance and an eye toward safety will give you and your tractor a long, healthy life together.
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Proper maintenance and an eye toward safety will give you and your tractor a long, healthy life together.

We tend to take tractors for granted, easily forgetting that these farm necessities have the potential to be dangerous, especially when operated by an inexperienced driver. Many tractor-related accidents could have been prevented if the operator had been more aware of his surroundings and how the tractor itself was designed to perform.

Most injuries involve operating the tractor at too high a rate of speed, careless turns, a lack of attention to the terrain or bad judgment in tractor use. With a little foresight and focus, even an inexperienced operator can avoid making a tragic mistake.

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Learning to Drive
Most people will find it difficult to learn to drive a standard/manual transmission tractor on their own, especially if they don't have experience driving a standard-transmission car.

If your tractor is geared - meaning you have to use a clutch for every change of speed - we advise you to get some hands-on driving lessons. You'll need to understand how to engage the clutch and practice so that you get a feel for the clutch and learn to release it slowly instead of with a jerking motion. The jerking motion will usually kill the engine, leaving you right back at square one. You can't learn the feel of the clutch by reading about it on a page.

Fortunately, as with the auto industry, most new tractors can be purchased with a hydrostatic transmission, which is similar to an automatic transmission in cars. Although the tractor will still have a clutch, you'll only use it when you take off or make a drastic change in speed, such as from low to high, or go in reverse. Otherwise, once you're moving, you can use the foot pedal to increase your speed.

One of the most important things to realize about driving your tractor is that it's not your car. Many tractor-

related fatalities involve a driver error that caused the tractor to flip over or land on its side. Speed, of course, is an issue, as is your ability to judge turns and slopes. Rough terrain, unfamiliar ground and hills require you to reduce your speed. Tractors will bounce over bumpy pathways more than cars, and hitting an unseen hole can give you quite a jolt at any speed.

Use common sense when driving on a hill. If it looks too steep to make safely, it probably is. (Be sure you read the owner's manual thoroughly for tips on handling steep terrain.) Watch closely for ditches, loose/slippery terrain and driving too close to the edge of an embankment, as any of these situations could cause the tractor to flip over. This goes for whether you choose to navigate the hill on a sideways path or straight up and down.

When driving down a hill, brake to stop the tractor from going too fast. If you have to stop in the middle of a steep hill - going up or down- and on takeoff let out the clutch too quickly, you could flip the tractor over.

Safety
Just as when you drive your car, it's your responsibility to be fully aware of your surroundings, including what's behind you or what could dart out from behind a bush. Never back up your tractor without looking behind you or move forward without being sure you have a clear path.

Passengers must never be allowed to ride on a vehicle not designed to carry them. A small bump in the road could throw them from the tractor and they could land under a wheel.

Be sure you have the seat properly adjusted and that you can see a full 360° around you. You should be able to comfortably reach the steering wheel and all foot pedals.

The tractor's rollover protection structure (ROPS) should be up and in place. Some models have a foldable bar to allow you to drive through low overhead doors, but you must return it to its normal position once you leave that low area.

Always wear your seatbelt when you have an ROPS. Be sure all safety shields/guards are in place. If any are broken, be sure to replace them before using the equipment.

On roads, use hand signs to signal braking and turns if your tractor isn't equipped with turn signals and brake lights. Follow all driving laws and stop signs. If you need to use your tractor on the road, be sure you have a warning sign on the back that signals a slow-moving vehicle. Avoid driving a tractor at night, especially on roadways. Check that all lights are in working order before you use the tractor.

Unless you need the individual-wheel braking power afforded by the dual-pedal braking system, keep the locking device in place, especially on highways. If you don't use this lock and your foot slips off one of the pedals, you will only stop one tire, which could cause the tractor to flip - much like when you ride a bicycle at a high rate of speed and only hit the front-tire brake.

Other safety considerations include:

  • Never refuel a running tractor, and never refuel a hot tractor.
  • If you're using the tractor inside the barn, be certain that you have adequate ventilation, as the exhaust fumes contain carbon monoxide.
  • Keep your foot pedals clean of dirt and debris, so your feet won't slip off.
  • Do not leave the tractor in neutral when you're not sitting in the seat.
  • Always set your brakes before dismounting.
  • Strictly follow your tractor's recommended maintenance schedule.

Implement Safety
Obviously, you purchased the tractor for more than driving around the farm. Chances are you've also purchased a mower, manure spreader, drag and so on to help with farm maintenance. (See the May 2005 issue of John Lyons' Perfect Horse.)

Only attach implements to your tractor that are designed to be used with your tractor model and size. Towing something too heavy for your tractor will strain its engine and compromise its safety level. In addition, you must be sure that the implement connects properly to the tractor's hitch.

If your implement requires a PTO (power takeoff device), be especially cautious regarding its use. The PTO can be one of the most dangerous components of your tractor. It turns amazingly fast with a lot of force. If your clothing or a body part becomes entangled in it, it can maim or kill you, which is why a basic tractor 101 safety course will include an advisory to avoid wearing loose-fitting clothing around tractors.

Tractor Maintenance Tool Kit

You'll probably never have every tool you need for every situation - and some things simply require the help of the dealer - but these tools should get you through most normal maintenance checks. Be sure you know your local laws and regulations regarding used oil and fluid disposal.

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  • Grease gun
  • Grease cartridge
  • Tire air gauge
  • Portable air compressor
  • Hand wrenches (know if your tractor uses metric or standard bolts)
  • Funnel (for filling fluids)
  • Gas/diesel cans specifically marked for tractor use
  • Oil and filters
  • Container for old fluids
  • Extra antifreeze stored in its original container
  • Flashlight
  • Screwdrivers (straight and Phillips)
  • Hammer
  • Shop rags
  • Hand cleaner
  • Jack for changing tires (on smaller tractors)
  • Jumper cables
  • Notebook to keep maintenance records with a compartment for receipts for purchased parts
  • Store phone number for purchasing replacement parts
  • Dealer phone number to help with extensive repairs
  • A sense of humor

Never attempt any maintenance or adjustments to the tractor or implement while the PTO is running. You should know exactly where the PTO switch is located on the tractor, so you can quickly turn it off in an emergency. Don't allow anyone to run a PTO without its proper protection devices in place. If you need to stop for any reason but leave the tractor idling, always turn the PTO off before leaving the tractor seat.

Driving recommendations are similar for a tractor without an implement, except that you need to remember that your vehicle is now longer and heavier than it was before. Therefore, go slower and turn more cautiously.

When towing an implement, practice backing up in a wide-open area before you need to back up in a real situation. The trailer is going to turn in the opposite direction of the tractor's front wheels, and this can take some getting used to. Never attempt to make a tight turn backing up because that can cause the tractor to jackknife, where it becomes lodged against the trailer.

Tractor Maintenance
Basic tractor safety includes following the tractor manufacturer's general maintenance requirements and recommendations, such as the time frame for changing oil. (It's going to be listed in hours rather than mileage.)

For everyday use, always check the tractor fuel and oil levels before you start. Be sure the tires are properly inflated and that all the lights are in working order. Check that your brakes work properly before you leave the immediate area.

For general maintenance, learn how to check your transmission fluid (if applicable) and brake fluid. Also, know the location of the air and fuel filters, so you can routinely check them for dirt and clogging.

You'll also want to lubricate all linkages, such as the steering linkage, periodically, depending upon use. Check the owner's manual for additional sites. Many bearings may be sealed and won't need to be checked.

Never substitute oils or other fluids for the manufacturer's recommendations. We suggest staying with the manufacturer-recommended brand, too. It's not worth the risk of damage to your tractor and may invalidate your warranty.

Avoid overfilling fluid levels. Although the container may not appear "full" when you look at it, the manufacturer has allowed for expansion of the contents while the tractor is in use. That's why most have a full-cold and full-hot mark. (Remember that antifreeze is sweet-tasting and poisonous, so be careful if you have any radiator leaks or are changing the radiator fluid.)

Though tractors can pose dangers that an average car doesn't, if you take extra care and follow these safety procedures, your tractor should serve you well and safely for many years. PH*