Guarding Against Corn Harvesting Accidents

Most serious corn harvesting accidents involve either cornpickers or corn combines.
Guarding Against Corn Harvesting Accidents - Articles


Corn Harvesting

A number of Pennsylvania farmers lose fingers, hands, arms, and even feet in corn harvesting equipment (Photo 1) each year and some lose their lives. Nearly all of these incidents are preventable, but fall weather changes, risk-taking, carelessness, or lack of knowledge is often found to be the cause of injury or death. Such tragedies can be prevented if farm workers understand the hazards these machines present and practice the safety precautions needed to avoid them. Most serious corn harvesting accidents involve either cornpickers or corn combines. Because these machines perform similar tasks, the dangers related to their operation are similar including burns, severe cuts, entrapment, amputations and death.


Cornpickers are a common type of harvesting machine in Pennsylvania and are involved in many of the severe incidents because of their easily clogged gathering mechanisms. Incidents typically occur when the snapping rolls become plugged and the operator tries to remove debris or cornstalks while the machine is still running. As the operator tugs at a plugged stalk or weed, the snapping rolls may suddenly free up and begin to roll, yanking stalks or weeds forward at nearly 12 feet per second. Before the operator can release his grip, his hand and arm have traveled about three and a half feet into the machine (Illustration). Once the person becomes entangled in the machine, it is often a very difficult and time consuming task to free the victim from the machine. Local, trained rescue personnel have been known to find this type of rescue to be most difficult. Fortunately, avoiding this type of incident is easy by simply turning off the power to your cornpicker before servicing it in any way!

Corn Combines

The gathering mechanisms on corn combines (Photo 3) do not become plugged as easily as those on cornpickers. Nevertheless, corn combine operators also run the risk of losing hands, arms, or feet if they try to unplug the gathering mechanism without first turning the machine off. Most combine injuries occur when clothing, fingers, hands, or legs are caught in a pinch point from exposed belts and gears. These incidents usually result in burns and severe cuts although amputations could also occur. As with a pull-behind corn picker shut down the combine engine and remove the key when you leave the operator's platform to avoid the risk for a potential injury. If a task must be carried out with the machine running, wear close-fitting comfortable clothing, remove any jewelry, and tie or secure long hair under a hat and follow manufacturer's operator manual instructions precisely.

Remember to reduce the risk of fall injuries by keeping the steps and walking surface of the combine clear of debris, dirt, and grease, and always use the handrails to mount and dismount the machine. Prior to using the combine each year, refer to your operator's manual regarding recommended maintenance and repairs. Prior to operation, adjust the seat more easily reach the controls to reduce muscle fatigue and joint strain. Before harvest begins, remove as many obstacles as possible from the field. If you are unable to remove an obstacle, mark it with a tall pole or stake that is visible over the mature crop. Remember the physical dimensions of your combine to allow for extra room needed for turning, going through gates, and general operation. The key to braking is to maintain the recommended speed and to use both brake pedals together for a more controlled and smoother stop. When leaving the combine, make sure the header is down on the ground or floor, supported by solid blocks, or positioned up with the safety latch secured. Always turn off the machine, set the parking brake, and remove the key from the ignition

Corn Silage Harvesting

Corn silage harvesting (Photo 4) includes chopping the entire corn plant (stalk, cob, and corn) into a wagon or truck. The corn silage is then transferred from the truck or wagon into an upright or horizontal (trench or bunk) silo or into a silage bag. Corn silage harvesting can be time sensitive because it must be ensiled at the proper moisture level. This means it can also be a fast paced activity which can result in serious injuries. The process also includes large equipment in the fields and running between fields and storage facilities.

Prior to harvest prepare your equipment by checking filters, hoses, etc., sharpen knives and cutter bars, and the accuracy of the cutter head and the storage facilities (e.g., sight rails, lights if filling at night, etc.). All tractors used in corn silage harvesting should be equipped with a rollover protection structure (ROPS) and seat belt. Make sure that necessary SMV emblems and reflective marking are visible on tractors, implements, and wagon that we be traveling on public roadways. With self-propelled silage harvestors, remember to turn off the machine, set the parking brake, and remove the key from the ignition before doing any maintenance on the equipment. Examine equipment for rotating shafts, gears, pulleys, and ensure that all shields are in place and in good working condition. Meet with everyone involved in the corn silage harvest process to review responsibilities and safety reminders.

Factors Involved in Incidents

Operating Near Ditches and Enbankments

Because of their size, it is dangerous to use corn harvesting equipment, particularly combines, near ditches or streams. If you must operate your combine near a ditch or bank, always keep it behind the shear line. A shear line hazard occurs when large vehicles (e.g., combines) operate close to a ditch bank and place considerable pressure on the bank or shoulder of a ditch. This soil can be weakened from freezing and thawing or prolonged wet weather, causing the soil to collapse. To avoid this overturn risk, drive your combine with the center of gravity as far back from the edge of the ditch or drop as it is deep. For instance, if the bank rises six feet from a ditch, keep at least six feet between the bank's edge and the center of your machine.

Corn Condition

Another factor that affects safety during corn harvest is the weather. In the fall, corn is frequently wet or icy because of rainy cold weather making it more likely to clog the feeding mechanisms of both pickers and combines. Wet or icy corn is also more likely to fall over, adding to the problem of muddy and slick field conditions making it difficult to stay on the corn row. If you must harvest crops under these conditions, slow your ground speed and reduce the amount of corn that you would normally take in the combine. Early harvest of corn can cause another set of issues because of hot and dry conditions. Dry corn can cause a fire that can burn rapidly endangering not only you and your equipment, but also your crops. Be alert for overheated bearings or belts and remove accumulations of chaff and stalks from near the manifold and air intake breathers. For added safety and the ability to act quickly in an emergency, your harvesting machinery should be equipped with a 10 pounds ABC-type fire extinguisher at all times.

Alertness of Operator

Harvesting corn is a demanding task requiring constant alertness on the part of the machine operator. Due to poorly operating equipment and/or long working hours, farmers frequently become fatigued and then cannot maintain the level of awareness required to safely complete their task. This problem can be avoided through careful planning before the harvest. For example, "downtime" can be reduced in most cases by inspecting and repairing corn harvesting equipment before harvest day arrives. Although long hours in the field are often necessary, work time can be structured in a way that will allow you to rest periodically. Do this by setting up shifts and changing off once or twice a day if you are able to share the work with someone else, or by shutting off the machine and taking a break every couple of hours when working alone. This break time is not wasted time if it prevents an injury, death, or machine breakdown due to operator error.

Extra Rider

On corn harvesting equipment, as with all other farm vehicles, carrying extra riders is a serious hazard. Unnecessary riders not only run the risk of falling under the machinery or getting caught in exposed belts or gears, but they also distract the driver and can affect their driving performance. When operating corn combines, make sure that no one enters the grain tank or stands near the stalk chopper when the machine is running. Occasionally children may be drawn by curiosity or a sense of adventure to the corn field where the harvesting is taking place so always be on the lookout for children in the field. The best way to prevent second party incidents is to keep all individuals, especially children, not involved in the harvest far away from the corn harvesting operation.

Transporting Equipment on Public Roadways

Similarly to a tractor, corn harvesting machines should also be equipped with the recommended lighting and marking accessories to increase their visibility on public roadways. The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) recommend the following marking for tractors and self-propelled machines outlined in Table One.


A safe, efficient corn harvest in autumn and early winter depends a great deal upon the steps you take to prevent an incident. Be aware of the hazards including weather, fatigue, second parties, and field hazards such as ditches and embankments. Most of all, remember that the key factor in most corn harvesting incidents is the failure of the operator to shut down the machine before unclogging or servicing the equipment. Whenever you need to leave your equipment to service it, always do one very important thing before you do anything else: Turn it off!

Table One: ASABE Lighting Recommendations
ItemNumberColorMountingPA Requirements
Headlights2WhiteOn either side of vehicle centerline at same heightSame as ASAE
Taillights2RedSymmetrically mounted to rear between 1.3' & 10' high and no great than 5' to left & right of machine centerOne mounted at each side on rear1
Hazard FlashersMinimum of 2Amber1.3' to 12' high & symmetrically spaced as widely apart as practicable to be visible from front & rear (60 to 85 flashes/min)Two if double-faced with amber to front & red to rear. Four if single faced - amber on front corners & red on rear1
Turn Indicators2Amber or Red1.3' to 12' high & symmetrically spaced as widely apart as practicable to be visible from front & rearNot required
SMV Emblem1Fluorescent red-orange triangle for daylight with a red retroreflective border for nighttimeOn rear center or rear left for maximum visibility of 1,000 feet day or night, 2' to 10' above groundAll implements of husbandry designed to operate at 25 mph or less shall display the SMV on rear of vehicle at all times on highways.
ReflectorsRed on rear of machine

Yellow on front of machine
May be either part of tail lamp lens or conspicuity material. Size to be 2" wide by 4.5" long for machines < 6.7' wide. Size to increase to 2" by 9" for wider machines which is >6.7' wide.One red reflex reflector or reflective tape at rear on each side & one amber reflex reflector or reflective tape at front on each side with size of reflector to be 3 square inches or more1
Conspicuity material to better define size and to increase visibility (machinery or towed equipment)Red retroreflective & red-orange fluorescent

Yellow retroreflective
Visible to rear: Red-orange nonreflective fluorescent material on rear corners within 25" of left & right outer corners of the machine. Distance between material should not exceed 6'.

Visible to front: Yellow retroreflective material.2 Reflective material to be within 16" of outside corners.
SMV only.

1between sunset and sunrise and during reduced visibility.
2for trailing equipment > 16.4' behind hitch point, display amber/yellow reflectors spaced < 16.4' apart on sides.

Note: Additional lighting and implement accessories typically require a 7-terminal receptacle.