New study looks at types and causes of tractor-related injuries

By Teresa Lopes

Published on July 22, 2015

A tractor on display outside of the College of Public Health.Although farming is a rewarding career critical for Iowa and the nation, it can be dangerous work. Estimates suggest that 2 of every 20 farmworkers are likely to be injured in the United States each year.

Tractors are a particularly dangerous source of injury. While national databases keep track of tractor-related fatalities, the number of people sustaining severe injuries and how these injuries occur is less clear. What is known is that nonfatal tractor-related injuries are common and preventable, with some suggesting the rate is 30 times that of fatal tractor injuries.

Types and causes of tractor injuries

In an innovative, first-of-its-kind study, University of Iowa researchers led by Amanda Swanton, a doctoral student and researcher with the Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC), and Corinne Peek-Asa, professor of occupational and environmental health and director of the IPRC, analyzed 513 cases of nonfatal injury from the Iowa Trauma Registry, the database of the Iowa Trauma System, to examine the types and causes of tractor injuries that required emergency care. The cases were from 2002–2012. The study was published in the Journal of Safety Research.

Study results showed that tractor rollovers were the primary cause of the most severe injuries. As recent technical innovations have focused on reducing the number of tractor rollover deaths, it may be that fewer fatalities have meant a higher number of severe injuries. Other frequent causes included jumping/falling/being thrown from the tractor, being run over, and collisions, often with non-farm vehicles on roads.

Bone fractures were by far the most common type of injury (almost 50%). Other common injuries included internal or open wounds. While most of the injuries were not that severe, the average hospital stay was 3 days, and could range up to 68 days. Notably, 23% of patients required at least one day in the intensive care unit.

Age and injuries

Age affected type and severity of injury. Children were most likely to be hurt falling or jumping from a tractor, young adults by rollover or collision. Those ages 25-44 were most frequently involved in collisions, suggesting that this age group is responsible for transporting farm goods on roadways. Farmworkers in their 40s were injured often but not severely, while those over 55 had a lower risk of injury but a higher risk of being badly hurt, perhaps due to being less resilient and more fragile.

According to Swanton, “the tractor is an everyday part of farm life, and it can be hard to imagine that such a trusted piece of machinery can be dangerous. Tractor injuries are usually sudden and unexpected, but they are also preventable. Making sure tractors have rollover protective structures, are kept in good working condition, and using common sense when working with tractors can go a long way in preventing injuries.” Swanton is a student in the UI Medical Scientist Training Program that provides training for both the MD and PhD degrees.

Studies like this are critical to the effort to reduce the number of farm injuries. Possible approaches might include reconsidering tractor design, how farm equipment interacts with roadways, and how best to educate farmworkers on tractor safety.

The research team also included Tracy Young, injury epidemiologist with the IPRC; Kathy Leinenkugel, Iowa Department of Public Health; and James Torner, a faculty member with the IPRC and professor and head of epidemiology in the UI College of Public Health. The study was funded by the UI Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health.