You can’t retire from safety

Nov. 6, 2009
A former engineer was severely injured when the front wheels of the tractor he was driving fell into a culvert. He had removed a heavy-duty, rollover-protection arch because it was hitting the branches of his fruit trees when he drove the equipment between rows.

A good friend of mine was severely injured when the front wheels of the tractor he was driving fell into a culvert. He was catapulted free from the equipment and landed on his back, crushing a number of vertebrae. He barely managed to move out of the tractor’s path without it falling on him.
He had purchased the tractor to work the large plot of land where he and his wife lived after his retirement. The tractor came with a heavy-duty, rollover-protection arch over the driver’s seat and seat belts in addition to its many attachments.
The property featured a grove of young fruit trees. As the fruit trees matured, their branches spread to the point where the tractor’s rollover protector was hitting them when he drove the equipment between the rows. Finally, he decided to remove the arch. Likewise, when the seat belts kept him from working from the seat of the tractor, he stopped using them.
The accident happened when he and a helper were cutting damaged trees into 3-ft logs which the tractor’s front-end-loader attachment could transport elsewhere for further splitting. My friend was driving the loaded tractor to his garage area through very long grass when the front wheels fell into the culvert and he was thrown from the equipment.
The helper and my friend’s wife loaded my friend into the back of his pick up truck and drove him to the closest hospital. There, doctors told him he had several crushed vertebrae. Luckily, neither the accident nor the way he was taken to the hospital caused any immediate damage to his spinal cord or nerves.
He’ll have X-ray checkups every three to four weeks for six months to make sure no bone fragments are moving toward the nerves in his back. Then doctors will decide if his back is healing properly or if he will need surgery. In the meantime, he is in intense pain and living on painkillers.
When he described the accident to me, he kept saying, “How could I be so stupid?” In his professional life, my friend had been an engineering director for a Fortune 500 company. He took pride in instilling his safety-consciousness into those who worked for him and into the machines they designed.
Based on his professional training, common sense, and the tractor documentation, he knew better than to remove the rollover-protection guards and leave them off. He knew better than to operate the tractor without a seat belt; whenever he drives he insists that everyone in the car is belted before starting the ignition. He knew better than to drive through high grass without checking that there were no surprises ahead. Finally, he knew better than to let anyone other than trained medical personnel move him when he was seriously injured.
My friend gave me permission to write this column, saying he hopes the story will remind others not to take a break from safety at home or at work before they suffer serious injury or have a close call.
Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at [email protected].

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