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Safety by design

Farmer feedback builds safer equipment

Danny Mann, professor and head of the department of biosystems engineering at University of Manitoba stands on the mock-up staircase built at the university so researchers could compare access paths on farm equipment, including the steps, angles and spacing and how different designs impacted knee joints of users.

A guy walks into a tool department with his thumb bandaged, complaining about his new hammer. It keeps hitting two inches to the left.

That’s actually not a joke. As any carpenter will tell you, you can hammer all day with a good hammer that’s the right fit for your hand, but if you use one that’s not, your hand will be sore at day’s end.

This is a reality for any tool, including tools and equipment found on farms, which can have built-in safety issues at times. It might be the shuttle shift lever placed just so, where your clothes will catch it every time, tractor axles that repeatedly break, tractors that slowly creep forward even in park, and even excessive noise that can leave the operator disoriented after hours of exposure.

All these issues and more have been reported by Canadian farmers since 2014, when the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) launched its online reporting tool ‘Speak Up for Safer Farm Equipment.’

The intent was to get farmers, manufacturers and standards organizations talking about safety concerns related to what they perceive to be the design of farm equipment, says one CASA staffer. The site gives growers the ability to log these frustrations with design of their equipment, or specific components of design, says Glen Blahey, CASA’s agricultural health and safety specialist. It serves to collect all concerns in one central repository, and issues deemed universal will be forwarded to the Canadian Standards Association, he added.

The issues farmers have raised also point to how important it is for equipment manufacturers’ service and supply sectors to offer thorough education for their customers, and for customers to expect that level of training.

“Farmers who are purchasing equipment need to not only talk about the dollar value of the equipment they’re buying,” Blahey said.

“They need to ensure that the supplier confirms that that equipment meets standards (of the Canadian Standards Association) and that the supplier provides basic training on that equipment.”

One case from the website illustrates the importance of better operator training. A farmer in Alberta was put at serious risk because he didn’t know what a warning light on the dash of his new tractor was trying to tell him.

“This was an incident in Alberta about a year and a half ago with a producer who had been baling straw and the baler caught on fire,” said Blahey. He raced back to the yard to get his newer-model tractor and hooked up a cultivator to take to the field to build a fire guard. As he neared the smoke-filled scene, the tractor went into limp mode.

“The orange light had flashed on the dash but he had not read the manual as thoroughly as he should have (and) he was unaware it was telling him that it was detecting high-volume particulate in the air. The warning was to protect the machine’s air intake system.”

Equipment design

But reading the operator’s manual, or being offered more operator training, just like guards or protective personal wear, is only one part of the equation for making the interaction between farmers and the equipment they use safer.

Alternate design solutions, or, to coin a phrase, building a better hammer, can help reduce the toll farm work takes on the body too.

That’s been the focus of research by University of Manitoba biosystems engineer Danny Mann. He has extensively studied the design of agricultural machines from a user’s perspective.

“At any time that there is a machine, there is also a person responsible for operating that machine,” said Mann. “Those two entities have to work in harmony in order for the optimal use of the machine to be achieved.

That’s for the good of the operator as well as achieving the maximum effectiveness of the machine. A tractor that can go 10 m.p.h. pulling an air seeder won’t be driven that fast if the operator is bouncing around in the cab because the suspension is less than optimal.

“I’ll be slowing down a couple of speeds to get to the point I’m comfortable,” he said.

Another example highlighting the operator’s role as part of a human-machine system relates to how farmers tend to disembark from farm equipment. Work done by graduate students at University of Manitoba have studied factors contributing to injurious falls from tractors.

For the study, they built a mock-up of a tractor staircase on site at the university to compare different staircase design parameters, such as the spacing and angles of the steps. Then they had study participants walk up and down the stairs.The study produced some interesting findings, including that spacing between steps can vary from one tractor to another.

“Only one of the tractors had truly uniform step spacing,” he said, adding that’s a concern given that other research has shown stumbles on ordinary staircases can occur even if the height varies as little as a quarter of an inch.

They also collected data on what sort of impact different types of staircases had on participants’ joints.

Compounding an operator’s risk of falling was discovering that test subjects routinely alighted from the platform of the machine facing outward. They use the access path as if it were a staircase rather than a ladder, said Mann, even if they’re really more like ladders than staircases.

Farm safety specialists always stress alighting from farm equipment facing the machine in order to hold the hand rails. Yet it seems more natural, and it’s faster to do it the other way, said Mann.

“Helping out on my family’s farm seeding I’ve had to remind myself to turn around and back down,” he said. “But when I was more engrossed in the work I’ve caught myself reverting to what my natural behaviour was too, which was walking down facing forward.”

If access paths on farm equipment were sloped more like staircases and less like ladders this wouldn’t be an issue, said Mann.

“I am certainly convinced that the design of agricultural machines requires consideration of human factors,” he said. “You don’t want the individual being hurt or excessively overloaded in terms of mental or physical workload as a result of being placed into the position of operating that machine.”

Farmers with a story to tell about design features they don’t like in their farm equipment might say that about hits the nail on the head.

For more information

To contact Speak Up for Safer Farm Equipment log on to:

CASA also offers the service at 1-877-452-2272.

About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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