Tractor Rollover Rescue


No farmer leaves the house in the morning expecting to become trapped under his tractor. Yet, agricultural death rates consistently rank higher than any other profession. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1992 and 2009, 9,003 farmers and farm workers died from work-related injuries in the United States. The leading cause of death for these workers was tractor overturns.

Stateline Farm Rescue, based in Orangeville, Illinois, was founded more than 20 years ago to fulfill the need for farm and agricultural rescue training in the upper Midwest. Each member of our highly trained instructor team has many years of fire and rescue experience and an excellent working knowledge of modern farm equipment and of the hazards involved with dangerous farm occupations.

Any group of farmers can tell you the current weather conditions faster than your smart phone, giving local rainfall totals down to the tenth of an inch. Weather is a huge factor in agriculture, and Mother Nature provides a small window of perfect conditions for any crop-related activity. You must plant in the springtime early enough to allow the proper growth time before harvest, and the fields must be dry enough to allow equipment to enter without getting stuck. Throughout the growing season, rainfall in the right amount at the right time affects crop yield. You must apply herbicides and pesticides at the proper time to keep the crop safe. Harvest time depends on the readiness of the crop. Long hours are necessary to accommodate these demands.

Although you can obtain knowledge of agriculture through education, the art of farming is passed on from generation to generation. With this succession can pass good and bad habits, which may keep a farmer safe or put him in harm’s way. Poor safety habits and nature’s time constraints are the causes of many farm accidents.


Not many industries can claim an on-the-job injury rate for an age group younger than 14 years old. There were 3,400 injuries to children and adolescents as a result of farm work in 2009. Children seldom have the cognitive ability to appreciate the dangers involving farm machinery. Without that understanding, they may place themselves in harm’s way innocently when playing hide-and-seek with siblings. The daredevil attitude we all enjoyed during our adolescent years can be extremely dangerous when combined with farm machinery. Risk taking, coupled with increased responsibilities, gives the 16- to 19-year-old age group the highest mortality in agriculture.

Similarly, most industries don’t have a high rate of injury or fatality in an age range above 65 years old. In 23 states, more than 30 percent of the principal farm operators are 65 or older; the average age of American farm operators is 57.1, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census of Agriculture. Comparatively, the Federal Highway Administration places the number of licensed drivers in the United States for that same age group at 15 percent of the total number of drivers. Farmers may slow down with age and even allow their children to take over operation of the family farm, but they typically refuse to retire. They will remain on the farm doing odd jobs. Greasing equipment, mowing waterways, shuttling wagons, and moving livestock are all indispensable duties they will perform.

Age, nevertheless, slows reaction time, preventing an older farmer from successfully using the same unsafe habit that has gotten the work done for decades. Additionally, most elder farmers have a favorite tractor they will employ for their chores around the farm. This tractor is typically an older model and may not have the safety features of a newer one. A rollover protection structure (ROPS) used in conjunction with a seat belt is estimated to prevent death or serious injury with 99-percent efficiency. Until 1986, tractor manufacturers offered ROPS as optional equipment. Many injuries and deaths occurring in the age groups between 20 and 65 can be attributed to “hobby farmers,” folks who buy 10 acres and a relatively small tractor and almost produce enough crops to feed the one cow, three chickens, and goat they have always dreamed of owning.

However, these people lack the experience handed down through generations. That’s what tells the farmer what grade he can climb, what hill he can traverse, and how fast he can turn with a given load. A tractor’s center of gravity depends on what the tractor is used for. When traveling uphill, the center of gravity will move above to the rear pivot point of the tractor. This decreases the distance between the center of gravity and the rollover “point of no return,” increasing the likelihood of a rollover. If the tractor is carrying a load in a loader bucket in the front, the center of gravity will shift according to the position of the bucket. As the center of gravity gets higher, it increases the probability of a side rollover. The amount of load in a wagon compared with the mass of the tractor also affects the tractor’s ability to turn or slow down quickly to avoid an accident. One of the foremost reasons for a side rollover is a sharp turn at a high speed.

Rear rollovers are the most deadly of all tractor accidents. The rear rollover occurs when the front end is raised in the air and the center of gravity moves past the baseline of stability, much in the same motion as a mouse trap. Reaching the point of no return can take as little as ¾ of a second, and complete rollover can occur in less than 1½ seconds, according to research by Deere & Company, a farm equipment manufacturer.

Agricultural rescues may occur in remote locations where fire apparatus may be too large to navigate the driveway. The field surface may be wet enough to entrap heavy fire apparatus. Understand that although the distressed person calling 911 may give the address of the farm as his location, the field in which the incident occurred could be miles away. Accurate mapping with aerial photography can assist in locating field entrances, waterways, and man-made obstacles prior to arrival. Bridges the farmer uses to cross waterways may not hold fire apparatus and aren’t inspected or rated in the same manner as a bridge for a roadway.


Responders must take special factors into consideration when responding to a farm setting and understand the machinery involved. Tractors are constructed using materials much stronger than responders are accustomed to finding during a vehicle extrication. For example, the cast iron used for control levers may shatter if exposed to forces applied by hydraulic cutters or spreaders. Knowing how to shut off an unfamiliar piece of machinery can be a challenge. In a tractor rollover, the difficulty in shutting off the engine can be compounded if a victim is trapped against or near the controls. The type of engine will affect the method used to shut it off. A tractor may continue to run even while overturned. In a gasoline engine, shutting it off can be as simple as turning a key. However, the key can be bypassed for a multitude of reasons and may not work. If the key is inaccessible or nonfunctional, pulling the coil wire while discharging a CO2 extinguisher will stall the engine and mitigate sparks. In a diesel engine, the fuel shutoff control is typically a pull knob. Locating this can be difficult, and it may be easy to overlook. The industry standard color for a fuel shutoff is orange (photo 1), although a missing knob may be replaced with any color or style available. In the latest tractors, the control panels look more appropriate for a video game than for a farm implement. The best way to familiarize yourself with a variety of farm equipment is to visit a local farm implement dealership and ask a mechanic about the various shutdown procedures and alternatives.

(1) Photos courtesy of Stateline Farm Rescue.
(1) Photos courtesy of Stateline Farm Rescue.

If the tractor has only one seat, one might assume that there should be only one rider. But in many tractor rollovers, it has been documented that there was more than one victim. A second victim, riding on a fender, could easily be thrown clear during the rollover. Larger tractors are sometimes outfitted with a “training seat.” This seat becomes a “buddy” seat or even a mobile daycare when school is out. A second victim must always be ruled out by the first victim, the family, or a thorough search of the area. A search can begin while doing a walk-around to identify hazards.


Many hazards exist at the scene of a tractor rollover. In addition to the challenge of shutting off a running tractor while it’s upside down, it could potentially restart if the tires rotate with enough force. To prevent a restart, bind the rear tires to the tractor’s frame with chain to prevent rotation (photo 2).


Attachments can remain connected to the tractor even during a rollover, creating difficulty in stabilization by dramatically shifting the center of gravity. The power takeoff shaft may also remain attached and contain potential (stored) energy if it was in use at the time of the rollover. Attachments may contain chemicals such as herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, or fertilizers. They may need to be contained or diverted from the victim and responders.

Contaminants leaking from the engine can cause problems for the victim as well. Motor oil, antifreeze, and hydraulic fluid can be at extremely high temperatures and highly pressurized in a tractor that has been working hard all day. Leakage can produce thermal burns as well as wound contamination. The rear tires may be filled with a 20- to 40-percent calcium chloride brine solution to add weight and increase traction. Contact with this solution can create skin irritation and chemical burns.

A tractor battery is typically on or near the operator platform to allow maximum power to the starter. Any battery leakage will likely contaminate the victim, since the battery is near the operator’s station.


You need to consider certain factors to ensure you have adequate resources. Training your department’s personnel in responding to a tractor rollover and determining the level of training your mutual aid departments have in this type of response will have an enormous impact on the extrication time. Nationally, the average time for tractor rollover extrication is 45 minutes from the time the fire department is notified. Understanding the resources you have available may also determine which departments get called for mutual aid. Most fire departments don’t carry enough cribbing for tractor rollover extrication. Stabilizing a tractor takes significantly more cribbing than standard car extrication. Knowing how much cribbing is available from your surrounding departments can ensure enough gets to the scene quickly. The time of day may require lighting the scene as well. Depending on the setting, personnel may need to monitor the area to prevent a grass or crop fire.

Controlling the scene of an agricultural accident can be challenging. Big news travels with lightning speed in a small town. A crowd will rapidly form, members eager to assist in any way they can, sometimes before the rescue squad reaches the scene. Although they may be untrained in extrication, they can carry cribbing or shuttle personnel and equipment from the roadway to the scene, freeing skilled responder hands for other duties. Bystanders may also provide first-hand information needed to mitigate hazards. The family or employees may know how to shut down the equipment, will know if any chemicals are on board, and will have access to material safety data sheets (MSDSs).

Consider the need for rapid transport to a Level I trauma center for these patients as well. The forces that agricultural equipment can create may produce the mechanism for serious injury. Often, the farm accident is discovered only after the victim fails to arrive when expected for chores or meals. The “Golden Hour” can expire prior to anyone realizing an accident has occurred. Anyone who has driven through a field can tell you a medical helicopter may be desirable to provide smooth patient transport.


Properly stabilizing a tractor presents several challenges because of the awkward framework. The center of gravity of an upside-down tractor allows for safe approach from uphill at the front or rear of the tractor. A tiered stabilization process can ensure safety while effectively securing the tractor. If on an incline, placement of apparatus or other farm equipment may provide an anchor for attaching a come-along or chains to the uphill side of the tractor. Remember to cover the chain or cable with a tarp so it is more visible to the responders. For a tractor on its top, begin stabilization by placing step cribbing on the sides of the tractor from the front position, if safely accessible. Alternately, struts may be placed from the ground to the frame. Ensure that the struts are long enough to allow lifting room; this will prevent the need to reset the front struts later. Secure struts to the rear end from the ground to the upper inside surface of the rim. Photo 3 shows the struts in place before the straps were secured.


Once you have stabilized the tractor, you can approach the victim safely. During the trauma assessment, check the victim for impalement. The control levers surround the operator when the tractor is upright and present a danger during a rollover (photo 4, circle). You must cut any levers impaling the victim free of the control panel prior to lifting the tractor. Check under the victim to ensure the impaling object didn’t penetrate the ground. Digging under or near the patient early and throughout the extrication can lessen the amount of lift needed. Digging may also allow better placement of air bags.


The position of the tractor, the victim, and the terrain will determine the lifting point. Lifting as close to the victim as safely as possible will create the greatest amount of travel with the least amount of lift. With proper stabilization, you can lift using air bags, a high-lift jack, or a hydraulic spreader (photo 3). Use caution when placing your lifting apparatus. If lifting from the tractor tire, lift from the rim. Do not lift on the rubber part of the tire, as this may cause a rupture and spill its contents (photo 5), and impinging a hydraulic line can create a high-pressure leak. If placing the air bags under the tractor’s hood, fill the void between the engine and hood with cribbing to ensure part of the lift isn’t wasted on crushing the hood (photo 3).


The ideal lift is a single smooth motion that frees the victim. The tractor’s weight may tamponade any bleeding until the lift begins and the pressure is released. At this point, internal or external bleeding may increase. The goal is to free the victim three to five minutes after beginning the lift.

Why not lift the tractor with a loader tractor? There are several reasons for not doing this. The loader tractors used on a farm are typically not large enough to lift a tractor straight into the air. The back of the loader will rise up from the ground, and the overturned tractor will fall back onto the patient (photo 6). Backup cribbing cannot be placed fast enough to ensure safety during the lift. The controls on any loader will not provide a smooth lift for the victim. The owner may have switched the hydraulic lines during maintenance, thus changing the direction in which the levers activate the loader. If a loader is available, there is a very good chance the bystanders we mentioned earlier attempted it in conjunction with calling 911. Additionally, the inspection and maintenance schedule for the loader’s hydraulic system and its current condition are unknown.


Box cribbing placed at the opposite end of the tractor will create the fulcrum during lifting operations. During a front end lift, the cribbing should support the drawbar if it is in good condition (photo 2). Cribbing under the rear axle is acceptable as well. Typically, a tractor frame will extend beyond the grille of the tractor. If this “shelf” exists, a box crib built to support the tractor here would be ideal in a rear lift situation. Placing the fulcrum closer to the victim will require a greater distance of travel to lift the tractor off the victim. When placing the cribbing, avoid positioning your hands between the cribbing and the tractor or other pieces of cribbing. The box cribbing at the end being lifted needs to be built as the tractor is raised. The rule of thumb, as with any extrication, is to lift an inch, crib an inch. Step cribbing is a textbook form of backup cribbing that can be advanced from both sides as the lift occurs. You should regard step cribbing as a supplement to the box cribbing and never as the sole method. Assign personnel to each stabilization point during the lift to ensure the cribbing and the struts remain in place and secure.

A tractor rolled onto its side is in the most unstable position, since it has only two points of contact with the ground. Thus, you must approach the tractor with extreme caution. Again, a tiered stabilization process can ensure safety while effectively securing the tractor. As when the tractor is on its top, the safe zones are still at the front and rear of the tractor.

Wrap two come-along cables around the upper rear axle and tighten laterally to begin stabilization. Tighten the come-along on each side in unison to avoid pulling the tractor in one direction. Then place struts from the ground to the rear axle to further stabilize the rear end of the tractor.

Stabilize the front end beginning with struts to the frame in front of the grille. You can also build a box crib to stabilize the front. Step cribbing slid into place from both sides will also add a backup source of cribbing. You can now safely bind the rear wheels to the frame with chains to prevent restart.

Digging under the rear wheel near and under the patient is often overlooked. Especially effective in a side rollover, digging can limit the amount of lift needed and allow space to maneuver a limb to free it. From a patient care standpoint, maneuvering a patient’s limb to free him is less than ideal. However, consider the stability of the patient and how much time might be saved by moving that limb. Use caution to ensure anatomical alignment while moving the limb. Be sure to assess the patient’s overall status and the limb distal to the injury prior to and after moving the limb.

Choosing a lift point can be difficult. Proper selection of the lifting point and fulcrum can save time and avoid the need to reset cribbing or struts. If the patient is trapped by the rear tire and in front of the rear axle, lifting from the front may be the best option. Place cribbing in a wide pattern under the rear tire rim. Following the curve of the rim, use wedges to increase contact between the rim and box cribbing. Do not limit cribbing under the rear tire rim to a single box crib. Starting close to the patient and moving toward the rear of the tractor, crib all space available following the curve of the tire rim. This reduces the chance of instability after the lift has begun. Build a box crib under the front end during the lift to serve as backup cribbing. Place this backup cribbing to support the frame and the engine should the lift fail.

When performing a lift on the rear tire rim, pay extra attention to the stability of the tractor during the lift. A good strut system will be vital for this type of lift. Preferably, have a mutual-aid department with a second set of struts place its set below the first set and advance them as well. Place struts such that the placement of the base will allow for the vertical travel of the tractor while maintaining stability. This will permit a continuous lift with only a brief pause if the first set placed reaches its maximum range. If a second set is unavailable and the struts reach their maximum range, stabilize the tractor with cribbing and reset the struts to allow for further lifting.

The stability of a tractor during extrication, in any position, will test a department’s stabilization ability. Understanding the fundamentals of cribbing is crucial to the safety of the victim and responders. Wooden cribbing shouldn’t be painted. Diesel fuel and the other chemicals discussed above can make painted surfaces extremely slippery. The height of a box crib should not exceed three times its width at the base. Be sure the cribbing used is long enough to guarantee a base capable of the height you may need. A standard 2 × 2 box that makes four contact points per tier will provide enough support for a small tractor when using 4 × 4 pieces of lumber. Each point of contact supporting the load is estimated to have a 6,000-pound capacity. A larger tractor may take a 3 × 3 configuration using 4 × 4 or 6 × 6 lumber to support the extra weight. Having the right dimension of lumber on hand or knowing where to get it immediately should be part of every department’s preplanning. Overlap the ends of each piece over the previous tier. To ensure stability, the amount of overhang should equal the width of the lumber—i.e., if using 4 × 4 lumber, each end of the cribbing should hang over the edge of the previous tier four inches. Avoid stacking one piece of cribbing directly on top of another in the same direction, sometimes referred to as “flat stacking.” This will create instability with the slightest lateral motion.

Knowledge of the equipment and its capabilities is indispensable during a tractor rollover. The personnel in each position must clearly understand their duties and be properly trained in the use of rescue tools. Improperly placed air bags will slip and launch from their lifting position. A high-lift jack handle in the wrong hands can cause the operator serious injury. A hydraulic spreader can twist or slip if not properly placed. Although proper backup cribbing will eliminate the possibility of the tractor falling back on the victim, a smooth lift will be delayed until the lift apparatus can be reset. Likewise, during the lift, the cribbing positions should be staffed by personnel with experience building proper cribbing. Improper cribbing will not tolerate the stress of a tractor extrication lift. A clear understanding of the ratchet system on the struts is also needed to avoid lift interruptions.

In getting the tractor back on the ground, have the same respect for hazards as you had in the extrication. Reversing the steps you took to raise it is the safest and most effective method. Make certain the backup cribbing is removed as the tractor is lowered. Following our earlier rule, the tractor shouldn’t be more than one inch from the cribbing at any given time. One suggestion is to allow a mutual-aid department not involved in the lift to execute the teardown of the scene if one is available. This will allow personnel already physically and mentally exhausted from the extrication opportunity to rehab. Perform the switch one position at a time with a brief explanation of that station conveyed to the oncoming firefighter. Leave no position unattended until the tractor is safely resting on the ground.

Agricultural accidents can have a devastating effect on a rural community. Lost revenue to the local economy after an agricultural death has been estimated at more than $100,000 annually. In a rural setting, it is probable that firefighters responding to an agricultural accident will know the victim or victim’s family, adding tension to an already exhausting extrication. Appropriate stress debriefing, as with any incident, can reduce the risk of personnel turnover. Proper training can increase victim survival, create a safer rescuer environment, and change an agricultural incident from a chaotic scene to an effective and efficient rescue.

MATT ROSE is the 911 coordinator for Stephenson County, Illinois, and an instructor with Stateline Farm Rescue, which specializes in agricultural rescue training. He has taught classes for the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety in Peosta, Iowa, and regionally. Rose served 15 years as a paramedic, four of them with the Orangeville (IL) Volunteer Fire Department, and has served as a deputy coroner, an emergency department technician, and an orthopedic technician.

MARK BAKER is the founder and lead instructor/coordinator for Stateline Farm Rescue of Orangeville, Illinois, where he operates a dairy. He has taught farm rescue for 26 years for several farm rescue centers including the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety in Peosta, Iowa. A 20-year veteran of the Orangeville Volunteer Fire Department, he has served as a first responder for 19 years and a technical rescue team member for 13 years.

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