The Kentucky ROPS Project: A Summary

Henry P. Cole, EdD, and Melvin L. Myers, MPA

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agriculture, forestry, and fishing remain one of the most hazardous industrial sectors, with a fatal occupational injuries rate that was more than 4 times higher than that of other sectors during 1992-2002. In 2002 alone, agriculture, forestry, and fishing recorded 22.7 fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers as compared to 4.2 fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers in all other sectors. From 1992 through 2000, the fatality rate for agriculture in Kentucky reached an average of 62.3 per 100,000 workers per year – almost 3 times the national rate during the same time period (CDC/NIOSH, 2004). The Healthy People 2010 objective for the current decade is a 30% reduction in agriculture-rated fatalities. Healthy People 2010 recommends focusing resources toward prevention efforts where the risk is greatest. In order to achieve this objective, the leading causes of death need to be addressed. For agriculture the leading agent of death is the tractor.

Tractor-Related Deaths

The National Safety Council (NSC) has estimated that about 200 deaths result from agricultural tractor overturns each year (NSC, 1997). Murphy and Yoder (1998) estimated that these deaths account for more than one-third of all production agriculture-related fatalities in the United States. A roll-over protective structure in combination with a seatbelt can prevent nearly all tractor overturn-related fatalities and serious injuries (CDC, 1993). ROPS are sturdy frames attached to tractors or built into tractor cabs. They protect the operator from being crushed if the tractor overturns. Seat belts are used in combination with the ROPS to keep the operator within a protective “zone.” (Tractor manufacturers recommend that seat belts should not be worn when driving tractors without ROPS; e.g., Deere, 1994.)

In 1976 an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard required ROPS on all tractors used by farm employees (OSHA, 1975). However, the standard covered neither self-employed farmers nor their family members. Furthermore, farm enterprises employing 10 or fewer workers were exempt from enforcement of the standard. These limitations rendered the standard nearly ineffective (Karlson & Noren, 1979). In 1985, manufacturers decided to voluntarily install ROPS on new tractors as standard equipment. However, a large number of older farm tractors lack ROPS and seat belts. Despite the fact that installing ROPS on retrofittable tractors would reduce fatalities from tractor overturns by more than 80% and reduce rates of nonfatal injuries by more than half (Pana-Cryan and Myers, 2002), nationwide only some 50 percent of tractors are equipped with ROPS. In Kentucky fewer than 30% of working farm tractors are equipped with ROPS (Browning, Truszczynska, Reed & McKnight, 1998; Cole, Westneat & Browning, 1998).

National Occupational Research Agenda

The issue of mounting a ROPS and seatbelt on agricultural tractors is related to four priorities of the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA 1): traumatic injuries, control technology and personal protective equipment, social and economic consequences of workplace illness and injury, and intervention effectiveness research. The “traumatic injuries” NORA team identified farmers and farm workers, adolescents, and older workers as target populations. A goal for this priority population is to foster effective, coordinated research to prevent traumatic occupational injuries and deaths. The use of ROPS and seat belts is also consistent with the control technology priority that focuses on recommending engineering controls to eliminate or reduce exposure to hazards. In addition, cost-effectiveness studies of ROPS retrofit programs address the priority for social and economic consequences of workplace illness and injury by examining the economic impact of injuries on farmers and farm workers, their families, and communities. Furthermore, the aims of the Southeast Center’s ROPS projects are consistent with the “intervention effectiveness research” priority, which urges the development of practical strategies and techniques that effectively reduce or prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.

Promoting ROPS and Seat Belts in Kentucky

Starting in January 1997, a three-year community education program to promote farmers’ adoption of ROPS and seat belts was undertaken in two rural Kentucky counties. Two other counties geographically removed from the two intervention counties served as controls for the quasi-experimental community trials study, the first and only study of this type in the United States. A random sample of 1,648 principal farm operators from the four counties were administered a pre-intervention telephone survey. The survey collected baseline data on farm and farmer demographics: age, number, and ROPS status of farm tractors; as well as information about the degree to which farmers had contemplated retrofitting their tractors with ROPS, made efforts to do so, and had done so within the last year (Cole, Westneat, & Browning, 1998).

In partnership with a group of community leaders and organizations in the two intervention counties, a program of materials, activities and strategies to promote the use of ROPS and seat belts was begun. The materials and activities were user tested and continually revised in these two communities and eventually compiled into the Kentucky ROPS Notebook . The materials include presentation graphics and posters, six sets of mass communication messages including 100 radio public service announcements, a series of 25 newspaper articles, 15 text and graphic check and mass mailing stuffer messages and similar items. Another section of the Notebook includes nine hands-on demonstrations, skits, and other engaging activities for use at farm community meetings and schools. In addition, three interactive simulation exercises were developed based on real-life cases that illustrate the risk and consequences of tractor overturns and the protection provided by ROPS and seat belts in terms of both injuries and economic costs averted. The materials included in the Notebook were derived from injury surveillance data and constructed according to sound instructional design and behavioral science principles (Cole & Westneat, 2001).

Evaluation of the process, products, impact, and outcomes was conducted throughout the project. The project goals and activities were implemented as planned, the program materials were widely disseminated, and the products and activities were found to be effective in a variety of ways. Project outcomes and impact were evaluated through a series of studies. These included:

  1. ethnographic studies of key farm community leaders concerning their views of the impact of the program and their recommendations for its improvement;
  2. monitoring equipment dealers’ sales of ROPS in the two intervention counties and then interviewing the farmers who purchased ROPS;
  3. collecting data from SAF-T-CAB (the leading manufacturer of ROPS) about its sales of ROPS to equipment dealers in the intervention and control counties;
  4. repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs) on key dependent variables obtained from the pre- and post-intervention survey data from the random samples of farmers in the two intervention and the two control counties.

Results of the Kentucky ROPS Promotion Project

Field tests of the ROPS Notebook materials found them to be user friendly and interesting to farmers and farm organizations. The materials stimulated interest in the issue of tractor overturns and the role of ROPS in reducing risk of injury and economic loss. The materials also promoted adoption of ROPS. Tractor equipment dealer records revealed a total of four ROPS sales in the two intervention counties in the year prior to the community education program. Three years and nine months after the program began, dealers in the two intervention counties had sold 81 ROPS to 79 farmers. For approximately the same time period, SAF-T-CAB records showed 50 ROPS sales to equipment dealers in the two intervention counties and 10 to dealers in the two control counties. These ROPS sales included farmers who live in counties adjacent to the two intervention counties served by these dealerships. It should be noted that the SAF-T-CAB sales to the equipment dealers in the intervention and control counties do not include ROPS for John Deere or Kubota tractors. Both these companies manufacture their own ROPS. Nearly all other makes of tractors use SAF-T-CAB ROPS.

A post-intervention telephone survey of large samples of farmers in the two intervention counties and the two control counties was conducted three years after implementation of the community education program in the two intervention counties. The farmers interviewed were the same random sample interviewed in the pre-intervention survey. Table 1 presents the increase in ROPS retrofits of older tractors, and the purchase of newer ROPS-equipped replacement tractors purchased explicitly for the protection provided by the ROPS. These data are presented for both the intervention and the control counties. In Nelson County, following the death of a customer during a tractor overturn, one equipment dealer began a self-initiated ROPS retrofit promotion campaign. This spontaneous and unanticipated ROPS retrofit effort occurred early in the first year of the Kentucky ROPS project and continued in this control county throughout the three-year period. This dealer's retrofits are not counted in the SAF-T-Cab retrofit records described above because the tractors he sells do not use SAF-T-CAB ROPS. The effect of this adventitious intervention was a 10.3% increase in ROPS retrofits in Nelson County, which is greater than the increases in the other three counties. Nevertheless, retrofits increased in the two intervention counties (combined) by 7.2% as compared to Hardin County (the other control county) where the increase was 2.5% over the same period. Furthermore, where the decision was made for safety, ROPS-equipped tractor replacements for the intervention counties increased by 4.3% as compared to an increase of 2.3% in the two control counties.

Fleming County, one of the intervention sites, experienced an increase of 9.5% in ROPS retrofits and 5.3% for ROPS-equipped replacement tractors purchased explicitly for the ROPS for a total 14.8% increase in ROPS-protected tractors. Barren County, the second intervention site, experienced an increase of only 8.3%. One reason for this discrepancy between the two intervention counties may be related to the availability of ROPS retrofit incentive funds. The community leaders in Fleming County raised $4,700 in local funds. Using these funds they advertised and conducted public drawings for ROPS retrofit incentive awards of $250 each. Ten farmers retrofitted tractors with ROPS as a result of these awards. Other farmers who did not win an award became interested in ROPS and also retrofitted tractors. Incentive awards were also advertised and awarded in Barren County, the second intervention site. However, in this case there were only six awards, the first for $250 and the remaining five for $100 each. The effect of differential incentive awards is another area where further study can be applied.

Table 1. ROPS Retrofits and ROPS-equipped Replacement Tractors for Samples of Farmers across Intervention and Control Counties


Intervention Counties

Control Counties

Farmers (n)


Replacement tractors with ROPS

The Kentucky ROPS project and its findings continue to inform and inspire work being conducted through the National Tractor Safety Initiative. This includes the more recent two-year project Designing Community-based Social Marketing Programs for Tractor Safety (Anyaegbunam et al) and a cost-analysis study led by Dr. Henry Cole and Melvin Myers, MPA, on the Costs of Tractor Operator Injuries from Overturns and Highway Collisions. More information about these projects can be found under Current and Recent Projects (menu bar, above).


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