tractor with rollbar

Amber and Ronald Zank, of Neillsville, got a rollbar put on their tractor in 2013 through a rebate program run by the National Farm Medicine Center at Marshfield Clinic. Rollbars can prevent injuries if tractors overturn.

Zank family photo

Mark Wright was using a tractor to haul wood on his hilly property south of Mount Horeb this month when the tractor rolled over and crushed him to death.

The 1950s tractor, like about half of the 200,000 tractors on farms in Wisconsin, didn’t have a rollbar, which can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death when tractors overturn.

“A rollbar could have been a very important prevention piece,” said Barbara Marlenga, of the National Farm Medicine Center at Marshfield Clinic.

In 2013, the center started offering up to $865 to farmers in Wisconsin who add rollbars to their tractors. The device typically costs about $1,200.

The rollover protective structure rebate program, funded by about $60,000 a year in donations, has helped pay for 144 retrofits, mostly in the central part of the state, Marlenga said.

Marlenga said $200,000 in state funding would allow the program to expand statewide, an idea state Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, said he hopes to bring up in the next legislative session.

Five other states — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont — have similar programs, and Minnesota is considering one. Two receive state money: New York gets $250,000 a year, the same amount Minnesota lawmakers are seeking, and Massachusetts gets $25,000.

At least 47 farmers in Wisconsin died from tractor rollovers from 2001 to 2010, said Cheryl Skjolaas, agriculture safety specialist with UW Extension. More recent data aren’t available.

Nationally each year, tractor rollovers kill an estimated 96 farmers, making rollovers the leading cause of accidental death on farms, researchers reported in 2010 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Manufacturers have equipped tractors with rollbars or cabs since 1985, but many tractors made before then don’t have them, Marlenga said. A lot of farmers, especially those with small farms, use older tractors because they are cheaper, she said.

Rollbars, combined with seat belts, can almost always prevent operators from being crushed if tractors overturn, she said.

“If we can get them to put these rollover protective structures on, we can eliminate these deaths and injuries and keep our farmers farming,” Marlenga said.

Wright, 54, wouldn’t have qualified for a rebate because he wasn’t a farmer. But his tractor, a Ford built in the 1950s, could have been retrofitted with a rollbar.

On May 7, he was cutting and hauling wood on his land near Daleyville when his adult son went to check on him, according to a Dane County Sheriff’s Office report.

The son found the tractor tipped over on top of his father. The Dane County Medical Examiner said Wright died from injuries sustained from the rollover.

Wright, a heavy equipment operator at Edgerton Contractors, had taken other precautions. He was wearing ear plugs, gloves, long pants and work boots, said Lt. R.J. Lurquin of the sheriff’s office.

Tony Schumacher, a dairy farmer from Rubicon, northwest of Milwaukee, had a rollbar put on his late 1970s tractor three years ago. He paid about $300 after getting a rebate through the Marshfield program.

“It’s cheap money if it saves your life,” Schumacher said. “Anybody who has a chance to take part in it should.”

Kulp, whose legislative district includes Marshfield, said he was nearly killed as a child when he fell off a tractor on his family’s farm in northern Indiana.

His district has many small farms with old tractors that likely will be used for another generation, he said. Though the state budget has many competing demands, he said he will seek state funding next year for the rollbar rebate program.

“There’s no question about it, it makes tractors safer,” Kulp said.

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.