Photo by Paul J. Seeling
Photo by Paul J. Seeling

Submitted by Ellen G. Duysen, Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center

OMAHA, NE – Combines are one of the largest pieces of harvest equipment and operating them safely can greatly enhance harvest efficiency. Last week we left off discussing fire hazards and continue that now.

“Other places where fire can start are worn belts that slip and cause friction and build up heat,” Long says. “Leaking grease or lubricant can also burst into flame if they’re hot enough.”

Long encourages use of an infrared thermometer that can quickly scan potential hot points on the combine and provide a temperature reading.

“The gun can be used to obtain a temperature reading on combine bearings that are well over the operator’s head,” Long says. “It takes just a few minutes to scan those potential hot spots and know for certain you’re not in danger of igniting a fire.”

In refueling, newer combines using diesel fuel pose a lesser threat of a fuel fire, but it’s recommended to allow the engine to cool to some degree before refueling. Older combines, running on gasoline, are more susceptible to fire due to the flammability of the fuel and its vapors.

“In the event of a fuel spill, clean it up as much as possible,” Long says. “You don’t want the combine sitting over any area where fuel was spilled because that sets you up for igniting a fire.”

A pre-harvest combine checkup must include GPS (global positioning systems) and calibration of any other technology included in the combine, such as yield monitors. Even though calibration of this type of equipment is usually taken care of at the time of purchase, it requires regular recalibration. Consult the combine manual for calibration instructions specific to the technology brand.

While it isn’t feasible to keep a wide range of replacement parts on hand, maintaining supplies such as fuel and oil filters, belts and chains can help avoid major harvest downtime.

“Some parts, such as belts and chains, parts known to fail at some point, should be replaced each year prior to failure, minimizing any economic impact of a breakdown,” Long says.

Safety steps sometimes overlooked at harvest time are identification of washouts, ditches or other obstacles and areas of the field where terrain is impassable or uneven. Since tall corn can obscure many features of a field, marking difficult terrain with a flag can help operators safely navigate the area(s).

“Dropping the combine into a ditch could cause significant damage to both the combine and head,” Long says. “When operators are fatigued and covering a lot of ground in a short time, it’s easy to overlook these kinds of obstacles.”

In checking the combine’s hydraulic system, Long advises use of a piece of cardboard to search for any leaks, since the hydraulic fluid PSI (pounds-per-square-inch) is high enough to cause a skin laceration or injury to soft tissue.

“It’s the same type of pressure used in waterjet cutters that use a high pressure stream to pierce metal,” Long says. “With the cardboard or other type of material catching a spray of fluid, you can quickly detect a leak or drippage. When the combine is sitting on a concrete base, that’s also a good time to check underneath it for any indication of fluid leaks.”

Ideally, moving from one field to the next should be completed during daylight hours. If an operator needs to drive down a highway or side road after dark, use of the most lighting possible helps reduce potential for accidents. Even with significant lighting, some drivers may not recognize what type of equipment they’re coming up on until they’re right there.

“It’s always preferable to move with the header off and in some cases, the widest combines have no choice in that because the header takes up both lanes on a highway,” Long says. “Make sure everything on the combine is in stowed position and all grain is dumped in grain carts or trucks. Combines have a high center of gravity and traveling with grain in the bin increases the chances of tipping on uneven ground or when entering onto a roadway.”

Pre-harvest planning begins at planting time, when producers develop a weed management strategy. Minimizing weed issues means problems related to weeds wrapping around rotating parts and plugging are greatly reduced, too.

“A weed-free crop means less likelihood that the combine will plug,” Long says. “In a weedy field, it’s not uncommon for a producer to become frustrated with the plugging and look for ways to cut corners to keep harvest moving. That’s when you get into issues of human error.

“Fatigue can cause us to make decisions we wouldn’t otherwise choose,” he adds. “Staying alert and doing everything you can to enhance safety will make harvest more safe, efficient and more productive.”