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UI College of Public Health Faculty member Wayne Sanderson and his wife Linda working on a tractor

Remarkable prevention

Note: The University of Iowa has introduced a new certificate program dedicated to agricultural safety and health.

Farming is one of the most dangerous professions in the United States, and tractors are the leading cause of agricultural fatalities. University of Iowa researchers want to learn more about how farmers use their tractors and how to prevent injuries and deaths from tractor accidents.

Investigators at the University’s Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health (GPCAH) recently published a study of tractor safety on Iowa farms. They emphasize that installing and using available safety equipment can save lives.

"Each year in Iowa, an average of 11 people die in tractor overturns. Nationwide the number is about 130," says Wayne Sanderson, director of the GPCAH and associate professor of occupational and environmental health at the UI College of Public Health (pictured above with his wife, Karen, on their farm). "The use of rollover protective structures and seatbelts on all tractors would dramatically reduce injuries and fatalities."

Rollover protective devices (ROPS) include cabs or frames that protect drivers should a tractor overturn. Introduced as optional equipment in 1966, they became standard for new tractors in 1985. But many tractors still in use lack ROPS.

Sanderson and colleagues surveyed 341 farm households and assessed equipment on 262 farms. Only 39 percent of tractors had ROPS. Just as troubling, only 4 percent of farmers reported using a seatbelt while operating a tractor.

"ROPS don’t offer full protection if you don’t wear the seatbelt," Sanderson says. "Used together, seatbelts and ROPS virtually eliminate fatalities and serious injuries in tractor overturns."

Many tractors can be retrofitted with ROPS, and the UI study gauged farmers’ interest in incentive programs that might offset part of the cost—about $1,000 per tractor. Just a third of farmers said they would retrofit without full compensation.

Equipment upgrades can be a hard sell, but GPCAH and its peer centers are developing a national public health campaign aimed at preventing tractor-related deaths. "We’re eager to work with other centers to prevent tragic accidents not only in our state, but nationwide," says Sanderson.

Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health
College of Public Health

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