New suggestions are being put forward regarding ERGONOMICS of Tractors, fork lift trucks and other ride-on machines.

Ergonomics is investigation of operator physical and mental abilities and the use of this knowledge to design and build equipment or systems to suit the operator and his environment. Ergonomics should result in safer equipment and better procedures.

Many of us do not have to be convinced of the problem, after having spent many hours on the seat of an old Fergie tractor with only a Hessian bag to improve our comfort on the metal seat!

It is now recognized that drivers are among the hundred of thousands of workers who suffer back pain each year. There is evidence that drivers of some types of industrial vehicles suffer back pain earlier than other workers and that some of them will leave their work at a comparatively young age because of it.

The basic problem is a hazard known as whole body vibration. In whole body vibration, the vibration caused by the engine, and the traveling over rough terrain, which passes though the body of the operator either via the seat or the feet..

One of the major problems is usually that it can take so long to show the effect that both operator and employer do not associate the problem with the cause. The two factors of intensity of vibration and length of exposure both contribute to the onset of back problems. The problem has been known to take years to develop, but when it occurs, it is often too late to cure. A suggestion has been put forward that some ride-on vehicles should only be used for up to two hours per day!

The work environments which have been identified by the HSE as being hazardous are :

However there are other basic factors, which must be considered

As an employer, it is your responsibility under health and safety legislation to protect the health and safety of your employees. This means that you must carry out a risk assessment of the Whole Body Vibration Hazard.

· Elimination - Do we need to use a ride on machine? In most cases there is no alternative and so this is not applicable.

· Substitution - is there any other way of a carrying out the task? Some of the tasks presently carried out by tractor could be equally well carried out by pedestrian equipment which would not involve the operator in whole body vibration.

· Administrative Controls - The problem is obviously made worse by the time spent in the driving seat. Can this be reduced? In agriculture great strides have been made by using larger equipment to cover the area more quickly and thus reduce this exposure. Another alternative is to share the work and allow all staff to rotate using hand and pedestrian machines as well as ride on equipment.

· Engineering Controls - The manufacturers are making great strides in this regard. Whilst visiting a Golf Club last week, I sat on a Ride-on Mower and marvelled at the improvements over the past 15 years. The seats are more padded, they have armrests, spring suspension to cut out the vibration, the controls user friendly and at the easiest to use positions. I have no doubt the manufacturers will continue to improve these features. However, later the same day, I visited a golf course who were using a Fergie tractor, yes an old grey one! This brings us back to the critical discussion of renewal of equipment or updating of equipment.

· PPE : the choice of PPE is relatively restricted but a covering between the seat and the operator is obviously some advantage as is the wearing of thick leather gloves

However, before finishing the assessment a consideration must be given to the management of the use of ride-on equipment, in particular:

The cost to the employer of not doing the above could be considerable, time off work by operator, lost production as well as the inevitable insurance claims and payouts. I hope I haven't shaken you too much!

Reference:HSE Free Leaflets on Vibration at Work