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Opinion by Randy Weigel

Preventing Accidents – or Worse – During Harvesting

By Randy Weigel, Extension Specialist and Wyoming AgrAbility project director

The tragic incident, “Safety emphasized after accident,” reported in the Wyoming Livestock Roundup’s Aug. 24 edition, points to the critical need for safety during Wyoming’s harvest seasons. Whether it is barley, oats, beans, sugar beets or alfalfa, harvesting involves many different operations. These range from driving tractors, trucks and harvesters to loading, transporting and unloading crops, as well as transporting equipment and making repairs in the field or shop. 

Due to the many types of machines used, the numbers of people and different operations involved accidents do occur and fatalities are possible during this busy season. Producers and managers need to be aware of the many hazards involved and stress safety to family members and field workers.

Causes of accidents 

According to Tom Karsky, farm safety specialist at the University of Idaho, tractor overturns continue to be the number one cause of injury and death on the farm or ranch. Tractors can overturn when traveling too fast around corners, driving along a steep slope, pulling an unstable load that can shift on corners, a front-end loader that is carried too high or trying to free a tractor that is stuck.

Harvesting forage and hay, for example, involves mowers, rakes, balers, loaders and other machinery. All have moving parts that can easily entangle a person who comes in contact with them. Improper use, hitching or maintenance of implements is also a leading cause of accidents. If implements are used improperly, such as riding on a tractor fender, the result could be falls and run-overs by the tractor. Never mount or dismount a moving machine. Also, improper hitching of implements could cause the tractor or truck to overturn. 

Similarly, do not hook up a 540 revolution per minute (RPM) mower to a 1,000 rpm PTO. Operating a mower or forage harvester at excessive speed can cause machine failure or possible damage from flying debris if parts fall. Improper maintenance may result in loose parts flying off and striking the operator or workers. Not keeping equipment well maintained and in good repair can lead to disaster. Keep all shields in place, and keep platforms clear of debris. 

Working in an unfamiliar fieldand hitting a hole, rut or stump may cause an overturn or throw the operator from the platform of the tractor and cause an accident.

Unsafe transport of equipment, such as going too fast, not having clear sight when turning onto the road, failure to have the proper signs and lights and not driving defensively all contribute to accidents. Driving on the shoulder can also be dangerous since it encourages people to pass in possibly unsafe or dangerous situations.

Sudden movements by the truck or tractor can throw workers off balance when lifting bales onto a wagon or truck. Workers can fall off the platform and be run over, or they can lose control of the hay bale causing it to fall off the platform and injure a worker.

General safety reminders

Know your machine. Read the operator’s manual before a machine is operated for the first time. If you haven’t used the machine for a long time, get re-familiarized with the machine’s operation.

Wait. Be sure the harvester is completely stopped before hooking up any wagons, doing any repairs, servicing or unclogging the header or other parts. This is especially true for cutterheads, augers, rollers and PTO shafts. These parts may continue to rotate for several minutes, even after the engine stops. Trying to unclog a machine when it is still running is a major risk for serious accidents.

Dangerous situations

Stay out of danger. Never stand under or near the discharge spout of harvesters. Hard objects can become dangerous projectiles.

Take your time. Do not be in a hurry. Slow down and be safe. 

A University of Kentucky study of 16 farmers with upper limb amputation found, “Amazingly, all the participants blamed themselves for their injuries, citing carelessness as the predominant reason for the injury.” 

Entrapment in farm machinery resulted in limb loss for 11 of the farmers. Most injuries occurred during a peak work period, mainly planting or harvest time. One farmer described watching his arm being slowly engulfed in the equipment, helpless to stop the process. All the farmers noted they had difficulty believing the injury had happened to them but admitted that the careless actions that led to the injuries were usual practices among farmers.

Finally, fatigue increases stress levels and encourage farmers and ranchers to take dangerous shortcuts. The window for getting the best possible hay may be very narrow. You are tempted to push, push and push to beat the weather. Many serious injuries and deaths occur on farms and ranches at just such a time. Remember, no crop, no matter how large or valuable, is worth the unnecessary injury. Careless operation that saves time but endangers you is very risky. Slow down and use good common sense.

Randy Weigel is a professor, extension specialist and Wyoming AgrAbility project director in the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more information on farm and ranch safety, contact Wyoming AgrAbility at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit uwyo.edu/agrability