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Equipment Hub: Some winter safety reminders

Andy Overbay for Progressive Forage Published on 01 December 2020

As we age, Old Man Winter gets older at an ever-increasing rate. With each passing year, the joints ache a bit more and get a bit stiffer. While this isn’t a fashion column, let me give you just a few quick pointers from an old farmer.

First, if you are prone to wear two or more pair of socks on a cold day, you will also need to have a larger-sized boot as well. Stuffing your overladen foot inside a now-too-tight shoe does more harm than good.

Just like a well-insulated home uses dead air space to deflect the cold, your feet need the same room. Having thickly wrapped feet inside a too-tight boot makes it easier for the cold to penetrate, and you also reduce the blood flow that warms your foot naturally. Same with any other article of clothing – layering is great as long as there is room for more layers.

Enough of the fashion tips for now; however, all these extra layers can present a challenge to us from a safety standpoint. Extra loose-fitting layers are more easily entangled in moving machinery parts, especially power takeoff (PTO) shafts. Also, when it is cold, we are rushing to get done and get back to the warmth, which can lead to us taking some very dangerous shortcuts, increasing the probability of a catastrophic accident.

My colleague Eric Hallman at the Cornell Agricultural Safety and Health Program has an excellent publication online regarding PTO safety, which can be found on the National Ag Safety Database (NASD.) Eric’s work includes a chart showing just how far a 3-inch PTO shaft travels over time.

Of course, we all know a 540 PTO shaft turns 540 revolutions in a minute, but what we may not realize is that same shaft at speed can devour an average-sized person from their head to their toes in 8/10 of a second. Not surprisingly, a 1,000 PTO shaft can cover that distance in about a half second. In other words, there is no “oops” factor built into a PTO shaft.

Most PTO accidents and injuries occur when a person’s clothing or hair becomes entangled with a part of the spinning PTO system. Protruding components such as the locking pin, bolt, cotter pin, grease fitting, nails, universal joint and tractor spline readily hook and grab loose or dangling clothes or hair. Boot laces, pant legs, coat or shirt cuffs and tails, drawstrings on windbreakers or hooded sweatshirts, and scarves frequently get entangled, too.

The environment may contribute to a PTO accident. Slippery conditions caused by rain, mud, snow, frost or ice can cause an operator to lose his or her balance while mounting or dismounting a tractor or implement. Temperature extremes, noise and vibration from the machine can adversely affect operators by reducing their physical capabilities or adding to mental strain. When we are working in a tight space, we may have to come close to the PTO or perform an activity differently than usual, increasing our chances of being a victim to the PTO.

Because home and workplace are often the same on a farmstead, children are regularly exposed to dangerous equipment, increasing the possibility of accidents for non-operators. I don’t think I have to say how terrible a farm accident involving a child can be. Children often imitate behaviors they have seen others take on the farm. If you make it a practice to ignore safety and proper respect of machinery, it is highly doubtful that a child or grandchild will think twice about mimicking that attitude.

While younger operators may not fully appreciate the danger of a spinning PTO shaft, it is also true that as we age, our reaction times and physical abilities are eroded as well. Behavior and actions we got away with in the past will eventually catch up with us.

Not all accidents are human-error related. Equipment can and will fail, given enough time. Used equipment has been purchased without the proper shielding and older equipment may not have had any shielding at all. Old tractors that are mounted from the drawbar can put the operator right on top of the PTO; it is impossible to avoid close proximity to the PTO.

Every time I climb aboard my father’s old antique tractor, I stop to give thanks to the engineer who said, “You know, right in front of the rear wheel would be a jim-dandy place to put some steps.”

We often get in a hurry to get the job done. A good friend of mine shared recently that thinking safety and acting safely is a mindset and a practice. It makes me think of a comment from my brother who is a veterinarian. He was helping a client deliver a calf. In the recent past, the client had tried an unorthodox practice to deliver a calf alone and it worked. Thinking this would work again, the client had tried the same maneuver with terrible results. My brother said, “That’s the trouble with doing something crazy and it works. You can’t separate ‘lucky’ from ‘dumb’.”

There are no “timeouts” in farming. Please don’t test your luck by doing something that you will look back on and (correctly, but too late) identify as being “dumb.”  end mark

Andy Overbay
  • Andy Overbay

  • Extension Agent
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension
  • Email Andy Overbay

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