Small diesel tractors with less than 40 horsepower are very popular with homeowners with small acreages as well as with grounds maintenance contractors and small farmers.
All current models of what are called compact utility tractors come equipped with two important safety features – a rollover protective structure, called a ROPS, and a seatbelt.
"These two safety components can go a long ways toward protecting you in case of an overturn – if you use them," advises LSU AgCenter engineer Dr. Dick Parish.
A ROPS is designed to provide a safe "envelope" for the operator in the event of an overturn, Parish says. They’re carefully designed and manufactured, in many cases using special steel, to protect the operator from being crushed in rearward, sideways or other overturns.
"The ROPS may deform somewhat in an overturn, but will still provide a protected envelope for the operator," he says.
Because it’s critical that the operator remain in that protected envelope, these tractors also come with seatbelts.
"A ROPS cannot do its job if the operator is thrown out of the protected envelope," Parish says. "To attain any significant protection from a ROPS, you must wear your seatbelt."
A common excuse for not wearing a seatbelt is that the belt hangs down and gets dirty. But if you always wear it, it won’t have a chance to hang down and get dirty, Parish says.
The engineer says that some ROPS can be folded down to provide access to low buildings, for working under trees or for hauling the tractor. But the tractor is not designed to be operated for any significant time with the ROPS folded.
"A folded ROPS offers no protection," Parish says. "Restore the ROPS to its effective position as soon as the low clearance situation is ended."
When mowing or otherwise operating under trees, Parish says operators must be especially careful of low limbs if the tractor has a two-post ROPS, the most common kind on compact utility tractors.
"Running under a low limb can cause you to be pinned back against the ROPS by the limb," he cautions. "This is not an argument against ROPS. When operating under low limbs without a ROPS, you could be knocked off the seat and run over by your implement. You just have to recognize the danger and watch out for limbs."
Parish says operators on a tractor without a ROPS should not wear a seatbelt.
"Without a ROPS, you may have a better chance of surviving an overturn if you are thrown clear," he says. "But if you have a ROPS on your tractor, you should always wear your seatbelt."