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 Special feature from the 2013 Farm Outlook magazine

Advances in the cab

Is it luxury or is it safety?

By Nila Smith

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[November 01, 2013]  Inside the cab of a tractor or combine, one might get the impression that it has been designed to resemble the interior of a luxury vehicle.

Today, these cabs offer some outstanding features such as air-spring seats, power steering, air conditioning and heat, GPS monitoring, and some even feature a second seat for passengers. Cabs are also designed with better seals and insulation to keep out the tremendous amount of dust and noise that is generated, making for a quieter, healthier environment inside the cab.

From outside the farming industry, the regular Joe might not realize just how important these things can be to the safety and welfare of the operator.

Since the beginning of the farm tractor, one of the greatest hazards has been to those who enjoyed the "ride-along." With early tractors being cabless, many a rider perched on the fender of the tractor for the ride. As these vehicles crossed the rough terrain of the farm field, it was possible for the rider to lose grip and fall off the tractor. These incidents many times resulted in the rider being run over by the tillage tool being pulled. The result: loss of limbs, long-term injury and even death.

The use of a hard-body cab on tractors helped prevent these types of horror stories, but in those early versions, it was standing room only for anyone but the driver. Children especially could be jostled around the cab on rough terrains, causing less life-threatening injuries such as bumps and bruises.

Today, many cabs on tractors and combines are equipped with jump seats for passengers and even include seat belts to help keep the riders in place. Today, few passengers get run over by the farm vehicle.

While air seats with specific shock-absorbing features may seem like a sweet extra, they have proven to be a blessing for the farmer who sits in the seat from sunup to sundown.

There are many minor injuries that farmers and the safety industry really don't include in their national statistics, but industry researchers do.

For the farmer, the early tractors offered a metal seat with no back. Later, cushioned seats with low backs became a standard.

The injuries that occurred from these seats were related primarily to lower back pain and injury caused by vibration from the tractor or combine. Many farmers develop back issues as well as problems with the hips and knees as they mature.

Modern seats are designed to absorb the vibration, reduce impact and support the operator's back. In the long run, this not only saves muscles and joints, it reduces fatigue and makes operating the equipment easier for the producer.

Other strides along the way include improvements to the steering mechanism of the vehicles, reducing back injuries and muscle strain in the neck and shoulders. Early tractors with no power steering made the physical labor of the driver more stressful and, again, more tiring. Today, power steering is a common feature on the tractor and the combine.

Automated steering through GPS has made the task easier yet. At planting and harvest time, some of the mental and physical stress and strain comes from the need to drive a straight line in tilled soil that may be pulling the vehicle one direction or another. The straightness of rows at planting time is going to make harvest an easier task. With steering assistance, much of that stress is relieved as the GPS takes command and creates straighter rows.

To date, GPS at harvest is not all that helpful in the cornfield. With many farmers using 20-inch rows, the system doesn't work well enough to keep a corn head in proper line with the rows. However, it is a great asset during soybean harvest.

In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, all manufacturing in the U.S., including the family farm, started learning about decibels. The decibel is a unit of measurement related to sound. It was determined that enduring noise with a high decibel level caused long-term damage to hearing.

In the farming industry, virtually everything makes noise, from the engines of the tractors, to the working parts of the combine's reaper system, to grain augers, grain dryers and more. Bottom line, the noise level on the farm can spike the decibels and ultimately cause damage to the internal workings of the ear, causing varying degrees of hearing loss.

Inside a sound-dampening cab, the decibels drop considerably, making for an environment that is not only healthier but also more pleasant for the operator.

Air conditioning and heat may also seem like comfort measures for the farmer, and in a lot of ways they are, but they are also safety nets against environmental hazards.

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Open tractors left farmers of the past generation exposed to many hazards. They breathed in dust from the fields, which was sometimes populated with molds and fungi that would settle in the lungs and cause illness.

In addition, the driver's seat was usually located directly in line with the tractor's exhaust system, leaving the driver sucking in at least a part of those noxious fumes.

Farmers were also exposed to sun, which we now know is a leading cause of melanoma skin cancer. And, fine particles floating through the air caused eye irritation and fatigue.

Cabs today keep the outside environment outside and leave the operator breathing cleaner air. In addition, operating equipment at a comfortable air temperature inside the cab leaves the farmer more rested and more capable of working safely for longer periods of time.

While the tractor and combine cabs may look like luxury, they do indeed offer many components that make farming a safer occupation.

However, not all the safety concerns on the farm can be so easily addressed. Farming involves daily contact with several physical and environmental hazards, and the only way to operate safely is to be aware of what those hazards are and how to avoid accidents.

According to Nick Hanson, assistant chief of the Lincoln Rural Fire Protection District, Logan County farmers have become pretty good at paying attention to safety. Hanson recently said that there have been very few farm-related calls to his department over the last few years.

He said he personally attributes this to awareness on the part of the farmer and safe practices. He noted that entanglements used to be a big hazard on the farm. These accidents happened primarily because farmers removed the protective shields from power takeoff units and operated them unprotected. PTOs can grab a piece of loose clothing, and in less than a second, a person can be pulled into the rapidly moving gears. This has caused injuries ranging from the loss of fingers, to loss of hands and arms, and even life.

Tractor versus vehicle incidents on the road are also low in this area. Again, there have been improvements in farm equipment that may be helping with this statistic, but it also may be that the general public is more aware of their surroundings.

Both tractors and combines today have higher "road-gear" speeds than they did just a few years ago. This allows them to travel faster, but they are still not as fast as a passenger vehicle driving the speed limit.

Non-farming drivers need to be aware of the seasons. They need to realize when they get behind the wheel that there are certain times of the year when they need to be watchful for slow-moving vehicles.

This is the 50th anniversary of the slow-moving vehicle symbol. The symbol has become a key component to the highways being safer today. Drivers have come to know and recognize the symbol as an alert that they are approaching potential danger and should slow their vehicle.

While there is no sure way to avoid accidents in the field or on the road, great strides have been made over the last 50 years to make farming a safer occupation. As always, the key to safety is going to lie in the hands of the operator.

As long as farmers continue to practice safety and motorists continue to be aware of their surroundings, we should see a continued decline in farm-related accidents, both in the field and on the road.


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