"Tractor rollover claims life" is an all-too-common headline in Iowa, and Andy Winborn is working to eliminate such news, with the help of university engineers and researchers.
The numbers are alarming. Tractors are linked to more than half of farm-related deaths, both nationally and in Iowa. The National Safety Council estimates more than 350 people are killed each year while operating a tractor, and about 52 percent of those deaths were the result of a tractor rollover.
Graduate students in the industrial-design studio class of David Ringholz, an Iowa State University associate professor and chairman of industrial design, developed a tractor-mounted device — dubbed "E.T." for extraterrestrial — that would alert emergency responders or family members of a rollover when it happens.
"Right now, we're preparing to help field test the prototype of this unit, which I would envision being part of a roll bar installed on tractors made before 1985," Winborn said. "There are many pre-1985 tractors in use on Iowa farms that do not have rollover protection structures.
"They're used for routine chores like pulling tree stumps, driving fence posts and mowing, which can be very dangerous jobs."
Rollover protection structures, or ROPS, is a cab or frame that protects the tractor operator from injury or death in the event of a rollover. Modern tractors are equipped with ROPS, but Winborn said operators are still encouraged to wear their seat belt.
When a tractor rollover occurs, time is of the essence to get medical help to the injured operator. Although a Thanksgiving weekend rollover in 2012 involving 42-year-old Noel Shepley of Cambridge and his 9-year-old daughter, Mallory, was discovered within 15 minutes, Shepley lost his life.
Winborn said many accidents occur some distance from the nearest farmhouse, which means accidents can go undetected for hours.
"If the operator is pinned under the tractor, they may not be able to reach their cell phone," he said."If we can equip this device with global positioning system (GPS) technology available on many cell phones, emergency personnel will know where a rollover has occurred."
Winborn, program manager with the Rural Health and Safety Clinic of Greater Johnson County, was contacted by ISU's Ringholz when the prototype was ready for field testing.
Ringholz said a radio story about an epidemic of tractor rollover fatalities in 2011 prompted him to assemble a team to develop a unit that would send out signals similar to those transmitted by avalanche victims. He in turn tracked down Kelley Donham, University of Iowa College of Public Health professor of occupational and environmental health and chairman of rural safety and health.
"We love the idea of getting people from design involved, but we're not 100 percent sure how you're going to deal with this problem," Dunham told Ringholz.
Ringholz and his students began by completing an extensive literature review of research on tractor accidents and safety systems, and conducting interviews with key farm safety researchers.
"We were startled by how many fatalities there were and continue to be," Ringholz said. "There’s been one death per month since we started this project, and I think all but two were in Iowa."
Ringholz also was surprised to learn that tractor rollover accident prevention was not a well-researched topic.
"As far as I know, we are the first industrial designers to look at this problem," he said. "All previous research we encountered was from public health, agriculture safety and policy perspectives.
"Designers are looking at other agriculture safety issues — like air quality — but none have looked at tractor rollover safety."
Ringholz and his team of researchers found that farmers, regardless of decades of experience and training, were getting into rollover situations. They also found that ROPS added to older tractors are 99 percent effective when installed and used properly.
Ringholz secured funding through ISU's office of the senior vice president and provost's strategic initiative program to develop E.T. The project received $315,000 for two years as part of the College of Design’s proposal for outreach projects that extend from the classroom to affect Iowans’ lives.
Winborn said installing ROPS can involve fairly extensive modifications on some tractors, such as on an International Harvester Farmall Model M.
"You have to mount an M from the rear, and that wouldn't work if you installed a roll bar behind the operator," Winborn explained. "To install a roll bar in front of the operator to get the same 'cone' of safety, you would have to move the battery on the left side and remove a toolbox from the fender on the right side.
"Another issue is the height of the roll bar and getting it into some barns and storage sheds. You can build the roll bar so that it hinges to lower the upper section to get the tractor through the door."
Winborn said lights can be installed on the top of the ROPS, which will help when mowing tall grass at night. Ideally, the roll bar with the rollover detection device would mount with four bolts and two wires that would connect to the tractor's battery.
Winborn is working to help prevent all farm accidents, visiting and talking with farm operators about what they see as safety issues that need to be addressed.
"They might come to the Johnson County ISU Extension office for a seminar, but they're not inclined to talk about issues on their farm," Winborn said. "I want to develop a rapport with them and hopefully determine what problems they're encountering, and turn those over to engineers and researchers at Iowa State and the University of Iowa for solutions."
A common issue involves connecting a mower or other powered device to a tractor's power takeoff shaft. A safety cover makes it difficult to line up the splines on the drive shaft with the device's yoke, so farmers are known to remove the cover.
"We have access to a replacement shield that has a lever release, allowing the operator to pull it back to safely align the drive shaft and the yoke," Winborn said. "It also makes it easier to perform regular joint maintenance."
Ringholz hopes the field tests will help attract a manufacturer to take the prototype rollover detection unit into full production. Keeping the cost of the device to a minimum will be important for acceptance by farmers.
Winborn said he would like to see ISU engineers test various models of pre-1985 tractors to determine the angle at which they start to tip, and equip the rollover detection unit with a sensor that would alert the operator when they are close to that point.
"There's a yellow light on top of the unit," he said. "That would flash when they're close to the tipping point."
Winborn also envisions adapting the rollover detection unit for use on four-wheel all-terrain vehicles, which have become popular on farms and ranches and have been known to roll over."Cattle farmers and ranchers use them to look for a calf," he said. "They're often moving fairly quickly across a field and may not see a drop-off until it's too late."