Retired Monroe County farmer Artie Whelan recalls one of his first days back on the farm after his discharge from the U.S. Army 64 years ago.
The half-ton truck he was driving got stuck, so he hitched it to a Ford 8N tractor to pull it out. Whelan (who is the author’s father) jumped between the drawbar and the front of the tractor to put on chains for pulling the truck.
The tractor’s unprotected 2-inch shaft grabbed his Army-issued khakis and ripped them from his body with the speed and force of a tornado. His corded Army belt held the remaining few inches of his pants.
“It was done in a second,” he says. “Those power takeoffs are nothing to fool with.”
Whelan was one of the lucky ones.
“Examples of these terrible accidents can serve as reminders how fast a life-altering event can occur,” says Tim Schnakenberg, University of Missouri Extension agronomist. “Guards and safe behaviors around farm machinery are well worth the trouble.”
A powerful piece
Since the 1930s, power takeoffs, or PTOs, have helped farmers harness the power of tractor engines to drive a variety of implements. The tractor powers a shaft that spins at hundreds of revolutions per minute.
PTOs revolutionized American agriculture, but they also became one of the most deadly farm hazards.
Each year at the Missouri State Fair, MU Extension health and safety specialist Karen Funkenbusch tells fairgoers about the dangers of PTOs.
Fairgoers test their reaction time by hitting a switch to turn off an engaged PTO. A readout shows how long the shutdown took.
“It is a common misconception that a human being can react fast enough to avoid serious injury,” Funkenbusch said. “Once entangled, there is little a person can do.”
With the shaft spinning at 540 revolutions per minute — that’s nine revolutions per second — a PTO can wrap the operator around the shaft in the time it takes a person with average reaction time to hit the off button.
Reaction time slows with age, declining physical condition, use of medication, lack of sleep and stress.
Safety around PTOs
Funkenbusch gives the following advice when working with equipment that has PTOs:
- Slow down and take safety precautions.
- Shut off all equipment before getting close to the PTO.
- Pull up long hair and braids when working around equipment. Put hair under a hat for best results.
- Remove jewelry, earrings and scarves when working around PTOs.
- Do not wear clothes with loose sleeves, frayed edges or drawstrings. Avoid long shoelaces.
- Keep safety shaft, master and implement shields and guards in place, even after repairs. Too often, farmers do not replace shields after repair, Funkenbusch notes.
- Stay clear of moving parts.
- Shut off augers and machinery equipped with belt and chain drives and rotating pulleys before working on them.
- Do not let children on or near a tractor.
- Walk around tractors. Never step over a rotating shaft.
Geist is a senior strategic communications associate with the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. She writes from Columbia.