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Ross (1) and Rhett (3) Wiswall getting ready
for harvest in Franklin County.

Photo by Tara Wiswall

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SAFETY FIRST

Understanding the rules and regulations governing utility vehicles on the farm

October 2017
By Trista Crossley


These days, all terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility task vehicles (UTVs), including rangers and other side-by-side vehicles, are as common on farms as tractors are. They can also be just as dangerous.

According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry (L&I), there have been five Washington agricultural fatalities involving ATVs and UTVs since 2008. Jesus Valdovinos, an L&I safety and health specialist in Moses Lake, said the use of these types of vehicles has increased as the cost of doing business has gone up since they are often cheaper to purchase and maintain than a pickup truck. While most of the rules and regulations governing the use of ATVs and UTVs are common sense, there is one over-riding principle when it comes to how L&I investigates and issues citations in industrial accidents: what does the manufacturer recommend in the operator’s manual?

“That’s what we reference ourselves, and that’s the best source of safety and training information,” Valdovinos explained. “The goal is to keep Washington safe and working. What we want is to avoid exposure to a potential hazard.”

Most manufacturers recommend that ATVs and UTVs not be driven on public surfaces, putting any farmer who has driven down or simply crossed a county road on the wrong side of the law. While that may seem excessive to some farmers, Valdovinos said it’s all in how much risk that farmer is willing to take.

“There’s always other options of equipment to use. If you know your employee is going to go up and down county roads or cross them, it may make more sense for the employee to use a pickup. It comes down to assessing the work to be done and the location of the work to be done,” he said. Trailoring the utility vehicle to move it or storing it in a different location are other options farmers should consider in order to avoid driving on public surfaces.

Another place where employers might be landing on the wrong side of the recommendations is when they make modifications to a utility vehicle, such as adding a toolbox to the back of the vehicle, without checking the owner’s manual for guidance.

In Washington state, L&I is required to investigate any work-related accident that requires hospitalization, and family members aren’t necessarily exempt. Valdovinos said if a worker, family member or not, is covered by industrial insurance, they fall under L&I jurisdiction. The rules governing noninsured family members or volunteer workers are a little less clear and depend on a number of circumstances surrounding any incident. Whether or not L&I gets involved is generally made on a case-by-case basis.

If L&I investigates an accident and finds the employer at fault, fines are based on the severity of the accident and the probability of the accident occurring. The department will also take into account the employer’s past claim history as well as the size of the operation.

Besides the recommendation to avoid operating ATVs and UTVs on public surfaces, the operator’s manual generally recommends what personal protection equipment (PPE) is required, such as safety glasses, long pants and DOT-approved helmets, meaning a bicycle helmet is not appropriate.

“We also look at what the manufacturer recommends as far as the age of the rider,” Valdovinos said. “When it comes to UTVs and side by sides, most of them have a full roll cage, but they are also equipped with seatbelts. There are usually stickers all over them that say to wear appropriate safety gear and buckle up.”

Employers may get push back from employees about some of the requirements, such as wearing helmets in hot weather. In those instances, Valdovinos said it is important for the employer to protect themselves by disciplining the employee through either verbal or written warnings and documenting the discipline, noting who was disciplined, when and what was said. Helping employees understand why the rules are in place may help them be better observed.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much an employer can do to force employees to follow the rules and regulations. At some point, the final decision comes down to the employee, but the ultimate responsibility remains with the employer. Valdovinos recommended that employers remain vigilant in making sure that employees are using safety gear and following the safety training, falling back on documented disciplinary measures when necessary.

Other manufacturer recommendations employers should follow include vehicle maintenance.

Training on vehicle operation is required once a year, and employers should take into consideration what kind of ground employees might be driving in.

“Wheat land farm guys may have more rolling hills. Some orchards we get into, they have lots of fences, rocks, poles, etc., so we recommend that employers cover the terrain where the ATV is going to be used in and the appropriate PPE, whatever the manufacturer recommends,” Valdovinos said.

In addition to the yearly training, employers should be holding a safety meeting once a month or any time there is a work change. So in the wheat industry, a safety meeting will be required when employees switch from harvesting to planting regardless of when the last monthly meeting was held. Employers need to document the date and time of the meeting, what topics were covered, the name and title of the person in charge of the meeting and have employees sign that they attended the meeting.

For employers that have questions or aren’t sure if they are covering their bases in regards to employee safety, their best bet is to contact their local L&I office and schedule a meeting with a consultant. Valdovinos said that any information shared between the employer and the L&I consultant is confidential and not shared with compliance officers. He did warn, however, that any problems found by the consultant are required to be fixed.

“If in doubt, contact L&I. We are always happy to answer any questions about safety or refer an employer to our consultants if they are unsure about something,” he said.