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Tractor roll bars help save lives in most common farm accidents

Boston Bates tries out a Case tractor during a recent Dakotafest farm show near Mitchell, S.D. The tractor he is on, and others in the background, have roll bars to make them safer if they tip over. (Forum News Service photo by Matt Gade)1 / 2
This Farmall 400 is an example of one eligible for a rebate if the owner installs a roll bar and seat belts. Experts say tractors with narrow front ends, such as this one, are especiallhy prone to tipping over. (Forum News Service)2 / 2

MORGAN, Minn.—Ruth Meirick was like most members of most farm families: There was too much work to do to worry about safety.

Then, "it just happened." Her brother-in-law was moving a bale of hay and the tractor he was driving on a northeastern Iowa farm flipped over, killing him.

"It only takes a second to make a bad decision and another second to have a consequence of that bad decision," Meirick said. "We have dealt with the consequences of having a death in my own family."

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The accident happened while Meirick still lived on her Riceville, Iowa, family farm. Now, she lives in Kasson, Minn.

"One thing I think we are failing is farm safety education," she said, something she is working to change as leader of a Minnesota Farm Bureau safety program.

Farmers often have an attitude about taking safety measures of "I don't need to do that," Meirick said.

"Everybody gets into their habits of the day," she said. "They forget to be mindful of farm safety."

But with more than 200 farm deaths in a decade, safety experts say it is time for a change of habit.

One of the country's most recent tractor rollover deaths was a common story.

Dan Zaiser, 53, was driving an International 460 tractor, with a loader attached, down a small hill when the tractor rolled over on his Missouri Valley, Iowa, farm, a Harrison County Sheriff's Department news release reported. Zaiser was pinned under the tractor.

The Aug. 20 accident came just after his wife, Kathy, announced on her Facebook page that the couple soon would move to Texas.

With tractor rollovers the top cause of fatal accidents, they have garnered attention. Several states, most recently Minnesota, have implemented programs to encourage farmers to add roll bars and seat belts to old tractors.

Assistant Commissioner Andrea Vaubel of the Minnesota Agriculture Department is running a program that began July 1 to offer rebates of up to $500 per farm or school tractor to install the roll bar and seat belt, known as the Roll Over Prevention System. The Legislature approved $250,000 of initial funding, and the department is seeking private donations.

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In Wisconsin, no state money has been used to rebate some cost of protection systems for 150 tractors, although a state lawmaker there plans to seek a legislative appropriation. Private donations have floated the program so far.

The New York Center for Agriculture Medicine and Health administers roll over programs for Minnesota, Wisconsin and five other states. About 80 percent of tractor rollover deaths happen to experienced farmers, the organization says.

Rollover systems, best known as ROPS, are 99 percent effective in preventing injuries and death when a roll bar is used with a seat belt, it reports. And ROPS are 70 percent effective when belts are not used.

Roll bars costs can top $2,000, although many John Deere-sold ones are closer to $1,200. Minnesota rebates are capped at $500; more than $800 is available in other states.

Even though he paid some of the expense himself, Wisconsin farmer Josh Goebel said that it is "a lot cheaper than dying."

Scott Heiberger of the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., posted on his blog that Goebel retrofitted his John Deere 3010 with a roll-over system after hearing another farmer talk about his accident.

"He was dumping dirt when it tipped," Goebel recalled. "Broke his leg in 20 spots, required 11 pins, he had broken ribs, a punctured lung."

Heiberger said that in Wisconsin many farmers seeking rebate money say they use the pre-mid-1980s model tractors more than other tractors, although some Minnesota farm leaders say the older tractors are being used less and less. Tractor makers voluntarily began installing roll bars or cabs with roll-over protection in about 1985. Minnesota's rebate program is for tractors without roll bars made before 1987.

While Heiberger said Wisconsin farmers vary on whether they would wear seat belts on roll bar-equipped tractors, they say they always would ask family members and employees to.

Long-time farm safety trainer Kevin Paap, Minnesota Farm Bureau president, said even he does not wear a seat belt on flat land, but certainly does when doing something dangerous or on hilly terrain. "Then you are going to click it."

Papp, who became a Vernon Center, Minn., firefighter in 1978, said it is important to wear seat belts after a roll bar is installed. "I picked up a guy who it was the roll bar that killed him."

Besides adopting the roll over system rebate program, legislators have required the state Agriculture Department compile a list by Oct. 1 showing existing farm safety resources. And by February, the department is to outline actions Minnesota can take to improve farm safety.

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About the program

Roll Over Protection system rebates of up to $500 or 70 percent of the cost for Minnesota farmers and schools are available on a first-come, first-served basis until the state's $250,000 and private donations run out. Farmers may call (877) 767-7748 or email rops@nycamh for more information or to apply.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.