Safety alert issued over tractor rollover fatality

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Monday, 6 February, 2023 - 12:00
Policy & legislation

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland recently issued a safety alert following an incident in which a worker sustained fatal crush injuries when he was ejected from a tractor and trapped underneath as it rolled over.

Early investigations indicate that the worker was not wearing a seat belt when driving the tractor along a road while hauling an empty sugar cane bin. For reasons yet to be established, the tractor has overturned and rolled onto its roof.

The alert said operating tractors and other items of agricultural mobile plant on uneven ground, slight and steep slopes, edges of depressions, contour banks or water courses present rollover dangers, as does towing or pulling loads.

Slopes that can be negotiated safely in dry conditions may be unsafe in the wet, as the tractor can slide, and tractor operators are most at risk of injury when:

  • the tractor does not have rollover protection structure
  • the operator does not wear a fitted seatbelt
  • the equipment is poorly maintained
  • working on uneven terrain or rough, slick and muddy surfaces
  • towing or pulling objects or loads
  • travelling through pastures where high vegetation obscures stumps and/or potholes
  • working near dams, ditches, irrigation channels, embankments or over-hanging structures
  • travelling at high speeds (e.g. on roads).

The alert said effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business.

“Use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in your place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest,” the alert said.

“It’s a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. You must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.”

Incidents occur when risks aren’t properly assessed and controlled, and the alert said some possible control measures include:

  • a rollover protective structure (ROPS) must be fitted to the tractor in accordance with s.216 Roll-over protection on tractors of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011
  • a seat belt also prevents the operator from being ejected during use or a roll-over.
    • Where the tractor or other agricultural mobile plant is fitted with a seatbelt and a ROPS is present, the seatbelt should be worn by the operator. If a seat belt is not being worn, and the tractor rolls, there’s a strong likelihood the operator will be crushed by the tractor.
  • logbooks should be maintained to record scheduled maintenance and repairs and any modifications which might affect the safe operation of the tractor.
  • conducting inspections as well as servicing and maintenance in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
    • For older items of tractors where operating instructions are not available, operational procedures and instructions for use should be developed by a competent person. The PCBU must also provide adequate training to all tractor operators, including the development of safe work procedures in line with the manufacturer’s instructions for the operation of a tractor.
  • assess the environment the tractor will be operating in for potential hazards such as gradient and terrain and determine if the plant is appropriate for the task.
  • designing tractor implements so that the person fitting the implement does not have to stand between the tractor and implement while the tractor engine is running.
  • driving tractors at speeds slow enough to keep control over unexpected hazards.
    • Operators should watch out for ditches, embankments, and depressions – unstable banks can cause overturns.
  • never allowing people to ride on tractor carryalls.
  • not driving on gradients in wet conditions where there is a high risk of overturning caused by the tractor sliding or its wheels sinking into the ground.
  • only towing a load using the designated tow point that is lower than the rear axle height. (Using a tow point higher than the rear axle height can cause the tractor to backflip).
  • reducing speed before turning or applying turning brakes. Where a differential lock and turning brakes are fitted, ensure the differential lock is disengaged, and the turning brakes are locked together before travelling from one work site to another.
  • descending slopes cautiously with the tractor in low gear.
  • when a tractor is bogged in mud or in a ditch, drive out in reverse gear. Logs and planks should only be used behind the rear wheels to increase traction, as using logs and planks in front of the rear wheels increases the chance of the wheels locking which can cause the tractor to backflip.
  • only climb on or off a tractor that is stopped. Do not dismount while the engine is running unless the transmission is in the neutral or park position and the parking brake is effectively engaged.
  • When operating a tractor at night or in low light conditions ensure the tractor is fitted with effective lighting (e.g. headlights, work lights at the rear of the tractor, etc).