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Mechanics Corner: Farm safety and you

Andy Overbay Published on 24 November 2015

“Keep shields (guards) in place!”

 We’ve all seen these warning signs on nearly every piece of equipment we own. So why is it that so many PTOs, shafts and pulleys have no cover and operate almost daily on our family farms?



Certainly farmers aren’t stupid or reckless, but the fact is that many repairs for safety’s sake just find their way to the back burner far too often. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the majority of farm accidents and fatalities involve the use of machinery. Proper machine guarding and equipment maintenance in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommendations helps avoid accidents.

Further, it has been estimated that the use of protective equipment, such as seat belts on tractors, could prevent up to 40 percent of all farm work injuries. Add to this the fact that most victims of farm accidents are children 15 years or under and adults over the age of 65, and the burden of dealing with the aftermath of the accident escalates.

With the growth in the purchase of quality used equipment, some machines are traded with the shields and the warning signs gone, so research is needed to properly restore safety to used equipment. That said, owner/operator manuals are available online for most major manufacturers, so finding an intact paper copy is not as much of a limitation.

Even when shields are in place, just like any other part of a machine, they can become worn, loose or out of alignment. Therefore, don’t just check your shields; inspect them for tightness, wear and proper coverage.


Don’t forget the small details

When the subject of equipment shields comes up, we often think about PTO shafts and starter contact covers, but shields on hand and power tools are just as important.

Grinders, drills and shears (among others) have just as much twisting, tearing or crushing force as any larger piece of machinery. We all know farmers that have lost limbs or fingers to corn pickers or hay balers, but a drill bit that catches your finger can wring it off in a hurry.

I once had the unfortunate experience of getting my left index finger caught in a screw jack’s threads. The worst part was that I had to unscrew the jack to free myself. Needless to say, it was a lesson to stay clear. I was lucky that I did not have to lose a finger to find out just how quickly that could happen. I could have lost the use of my hand just as easily. 

Don’t forget about shields you wear

Once again, oftentimes we don’t equate shielding to personal articles of clothing, but personal protective equipment should be an important part of your safety regimen. Personal protective equipment should include things like chemical-resistant coveralls and gloves, goggles and face shields, hearing protection and respirators.

Depending on your operation, hard hats (including bump hats that are very affordable) and chaps for protection from everything from thorns to chainsaws may be very necessary. On the subject of bump hats, it should be noted that a bump hat is not a substitute for a hard hat.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no definitive measure of when a hard hat is necessary or when a bump hat is sufficient. It is up to the employer to determine the level of risk for head injuries each job or task involves and to equip employees accordingly.


OSHA does require that “head protection be used whenever it is necessary by reason of hazard of processes or environment that could cause head injuries.” With this in mind, it may be important to involve your insurance provider in determining the best personal protective equipment for your operation.

Where to start

The best place to begin is with an honest third-person assessment of your operation. Just like judging how heavy your own cattle are, a third party has the advantage of not being familiar with the situation, so details and discrepancies pop out easier.

This can be accomplished through your extension office, insurer, advisory team members or local emergency responders. The following steps are recommended by the U.S. Department of Labor:

  • Make accident prevention a management as well as a personal goal. Develop an awareness of hazards on the farm and make a conscious effort to prepare for emergency situations including fires, vehicle accidents, electrical shocks from equipment and wires and adverse health effects from chemical exposures.

  • Reduce your risk of injury and illness with preventive measures. Read and follow instructions in the equipment operators’ manuals. Follow instructions on product labels for safe use, handling and storage.

  • Conduct routine inspections of your equipment to determine problems and potential failures that may contribute to or cause an accident.

  • Conduct meetings with employees and family members to assess safety hazards, discuss potential accident situations and outline emergency procedures.

  • Be especially alert to hazards that may affect children and the elderly.

  • Minimize hazards by careful selection of products you buy; by providing good maintenance of tools, buildings and equipment; and establishing good housekeeping procedures.

  • Provide rollover protective structures, protective enclosures or protective frames as appropriate for farm tractors.
  • Use seat belts while the tractor is in operation.

  • Make sure guards for farm equipment are put back on after maintenance to protect workers from moving machinery parts.

  • Review material safety data sheets and labels that come with chemical products.

Being safe is everyone’s job. The best time to be safe is always right now. It only takes a split second to change your life or the life of a loved one or co-worker, so be vigilant. You only get one shot at this life; make it count.  PD

Andy Overbay
  • Andy Overbay

  • Extension Agent
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension
  • Email Andy Overbay