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JOB 1: Not all serious accidents involving whitetail hunters occur in autumn. The off-season also has risks, some of them too often ignored.

> While deer hunting, we tend to focus on the more obvious risks to our well-being. We know to be careful when hunting from trees. We've learned to make sure any stick we're about to step on isn't a rattlesnake. We recognize the blatant dangers. But once the season's over and we're heading back out to do some habitat work, we can easily let our guard down--and in the process, wind up in even bigger trouble.

Whether it's a tractor tilling food plots or a chainsaw clearing a farm lane after an ice storm, power equipment offers us land managers huge advantages over walking behind a team of mules or swinging an axe. Modern machinery has paved the way for those with limited time and manpower to get a lot done, even on weekends or on a quick run to the woods after work. That's why such products are in high demand in deer country.

But there's risk with any tool. In the case of habitat equipment, trouble often comes from a lack of familiarity and spotty situational awareness. And while we're at it, let's also throw complacency in there.

We all drive vehicles daily, so we feel anything with a steering wheel is a snap. That 30hp tractor is basically just an oversized riding lawnmower, right?

Well, no. Easing a car through commuter traffic isn't the same as navigating a stony pasture in a tractor with a boom sprayer trailing and the front bucket bouncing. Even if you're not trying to text at the same time. And a chainsaw isn't just a king-sized version of the electric knife you use on the Thanksgiving turkey.

Trouble usually strikes without warning. A spinning power takeoff on the back of a tractor can grab loose clothing and mangle you before you know it's happening. A fist-sized rock flying out from beneath a rotary cutter can prove David-and-Goliath deadly. And no matter how proud you might be that you never skipped leg day at the gym, you really don't want your chainsaw to mistake your thigh for an oak trunk.

So we need a clear understanding of safe practices and endless focus on observing them. And that goes not just for us, but also those who are assisting us in our chores. Safety is everybody's Job 1.

A lot of us men view printed instructions as nothing but emergency fire-starting materials. We figure we know how to run a tractor or chainsaw. Why, it's practically in our DNA. So we might as well get on with the task at hand, right?

Not so fast, my friend. The most dangerous time for using just about anything is the first time. If you doubt that, ask an ER staffer about skateboard, bicycle or trampoline accidents on Christmas. (They're the real-life versions of, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid.") So take your time learning the equipment you'll be using this off-season.

Compared to what we veteran land managers cut our teeth on decades ago, many products now have helpful safeguards. We also have more and better information on staying out of trouble. When I was a kid, no one I saw driving a tractor or running a chainsaw wore earplugs or safety goggles. In hot weather, rarely did we don gloves or long pants. But every list of safety gear now calls for all these all the time.

Even so, far too many tragedies still occur. According to research done by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in 2016 a total of 417 farmers or farm workers died in transportation-related accidents. Not all involved tractors, but a significant number did. And of those, the trouble generally began with a rollover.

Since 1986, U.S. law has mandated the inclusion of a Roll-Over Protection System (ROPS) on new tractors. A ROPS is a tall, inverted U-shaped steel structure that bolts onto the rear of the frame, helping to keep the tractor from going fully upside down in the event the machine tips. Such accidents are most common in the Northeast, perhaps due to hilly topography, but can occur virtually anywhere.

Of course, for working food plots, mowing pastures and assorted other tasks, many deer managers still use tractors built before '86. Without modification, operating such a machine puts a driver at unnecessary risk of serious injury or death.

If you're looking to buy a tractor to use on your deer land, you should be able to find one with the system already installed. If you're not in the market for a newer tractor, note that many pre-'86 models also can be retrofitted with a ROPS. (Visit the National Tractor Safety Coalition website, ropsr4u.com, to learn more about rebates available for such equipment.)

"The most effective way to prevent tractor overturn deaths is the use of a Roll-Over Protective Structure (ROPS) with a seat belt," claims the NIOSH website. If a ROPS were placed on all U.S. farm tractors manufactured since the mid-'60s, the site notes, the prevalence of ROPS-equipped tractors in use would rise to over 80 percent.

Seat belts also are a huge part of tractor safety. When you're working alone, and thus having to stop often to open/close gates, tweak attachments or move obstructions, it's tempting to blow off buckling in every time. But that's just how easily disaster can strike.

Researchers in Kentucky found that when a ROPS and proper seat belt use are combined, the chances of serious injury in a rollover drop to just above zero. But a seat belt alone can't help nearly as much if you don't also have a ROPS installed.

Chainsaw injuries--most of them involving lacerations to the left hand, arm or knee--also are common. In fact, a recent study yielded an estimate of over 100,000 chainsaw accidents per year in the U.S. alone. According to research at the University of Arkansas, 19 of every 20 such injuries are suffered by males, most of them 30-59 years old. That group of course includes plenty of non-hunters who get hurt in their suburban backyards, but the profile also fits many folks in the deer-management community.

Regardless of the saw you're using, engage your brain before your chain. Study all instructions. Watch manufacturer videos. If you're still unsure of something, ask questions of people who know the machine well. If possible, ask for a demonstration. And if you still don't fully understand, ask more questions.

As critical as proper clothing and other protective gear are, they can't make you invincible. Use extreme caution in fueling, working around powerlines, etc. Staying safe with saw in hand is largely about being able to see danger lurking.

While improved safety features and clothing are beneficial, don't let them lull you to sleep. Dodging trouble still depends on the operator. If the horsepower and RPMs that get work done efficiently don't stay under your constant control, they can do far more harm than good.

Try not to work alone. If you do find yourself on a solo run, be extra cautious. When hunting, standard practice is to inform someone of the chosen stand site and projected return time--but do it during the off-season, too. And without exception, keep your cellphone charged and on you. That phone back in your truck is of little help if you get an ankle wedged in a logpile 150 yards away.

In summary, let's do all we can to keep our management efforts as safe as our hunts. That starts with having quality equipment we know how to operate and maintain, and it ends with full focus on the work we're doing, all the way to the finish.

Yes, we want better whitetail habitat to hunt. But in the end, a lush food plot can't benefit us unless we're out there next fall to hunt it.

BY GORDON WHITTINGTON
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Title Annotation:GEAR WISE
Author:Whittington, Gordon
Publication:North American Whitetail
Date:Feb 20, 2019
Words:1306
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