Beloved skid-steers are useful and risky

The skid-steer loader, a hugely popular machine that allows farmers to shovel manure and handle other tasks without getting their hands dirty, is also driving up farm deaths in the Midwest.

In Iowa, a farmer was run over by a skid loader in 2011 when the idling machine slipped into gear while he washed it.

In South Dakota, a dairy worker died last year when he used a skid loader with a bypassed safety device.

In Minnesota, Gordon Zibell got crushed between the bucket and frame of his skid loader in 2013 when he used the machine to lift a mower. Investigators blamed the accident on malfunctioning safety features that were either disabled or modified. A neighbor told deputies that most farmers in the area did the same thing, according to the accident report.

“It’s heartbreaking to me that the machine Gordon loved to use so much seems to have been the cause of his death,” said his widow, Anne Dudek Zibell.

Since 2004, at least 16 farmers and their family members have died in accidents that involved skid loaders in Minnesota. In many of the fatal accidents, safety controls that should have prevented trouble were apparently disabled or not functioning.

“They have built in a boatload of safety features, but ingenious people find ways to work around safety,” said Mark Hagedorn, a Wisconsin agricultural agent who developed a training course after several fatalities on dairy farms.

Across the United States, skid-steer accidents are on the rise, fueled by the popularity of the machines, which resemble mini-bulldozers and are highly maneuverable and versatile.

First developed for a Minnesota farmer who wanted a machine to clean manure out of his turkey barn, skid loaders are now a standard feature on most dairy farms and are widely used in other agricultural settings.

“When you ask farmers what their favorite piece of equipment is, a skid-steer is mentioned more than anything else,” said Dan Martens, a University of Minnesota agricultural agent near St. Cloud.

Like tractors, however, the machines have a tendency to tip over. They also expose farmers to unusual risks because the machines are typically entered from the front, where an operator can get crushed by the lifting arms if they are not locked in place.

Manufacturers have responded by constantly updating the machines, adding seat belts, safety bars, roll cages and control interlock-systems that make it harder for operators to hurt themselves.

But some farmers remove those safety features. Even Dave Frederickson, commissioner of the Minnesota Agriculture Department, acknowledged that he took the protective cage off his skid loader so he could get the machine through his barn door.

“People take shortcuts,” said Frederickson, who operated a farm in Murdock for more than 20 years. “When I recognize the errors that I made, and some of them could have been fatal, it causes you to shudder a little bit.”

Inadequate repairs

Kurt Schroeer never trusted his brother’s skid loader.

For more than 15 years, Danny Schroeer’s life depended on a bungee cord, which he used to secure a malfunctioning lever on his skid loader. If he didn’t use the cord, the machine would lurch forward when he jumped off to open the gate to his cattle pasture.

Kurt Schroeer, who runs a construction company, would bring his own skid loader to his brother’s farm in Perham, Minn., if he was asked to help with chores.

“I’d say, ‘Why don’t you get rid of that piece of crap?’ ” Kurt Schroeer recalled. “And he said he couldn’t afford a different loader.”

Danny Schroeer’s luck ran out in 2012, when the 64-year-old farmer was run over by the skid loader while doing chores. His farm was auctioned off a few months later.

“When I got the call, it didn’t really surprise me,” Kurt Schroeer said. “That was an accident waiting to happen.”

Schroeer, who also owns a farm in Perham, said he could never use a malfunctioning skid loader on a construction site. If caught, he said, he would get clobbered by workers’ compensation costs or a stiff fine from state regulators — a level of oversight that does not exist for most small farmers.

“If the safety settings on a machine don’t work, we panic,” Schroeer said. “You get it fixed as quick as you can or you get it replaced. … Farmers are a driven bunch. They are going to get it done come hell or high water.”

Large used market

At Bobcat Co., the country’s leading maker of skid-steer loaders, engineers have repeatedly made it harder for farmers to hurt themselves on the machines.

But there are plenty of options for farmers who don’t want a skid loader with all the safety features. At Farm-Rite Equipment, which claims to be the largest Bobcat dealer in the Midwest, Tim Cox sold 450 used skid loaders last year vs. about 300 new machines.

As he walked past a row of beat-up skid loaders, some dating to the 1970s, Cox demonstrated how easy it is to disable the safety features on an older model.

“All you gotta do is take these two bolts off here,” Cox said.

Shawn Warkenthien, director of product safety for Bobcat, said his review of Bobcat accidents shows that many happened when the safety features were modified or damaged and the operators misused the machine. He said it makes him wonder if the government should require training before any worker can operate a skid loader, similar to the way some states require training before construction workers can operate a backhoe or bulldozer.

“I think it could be helpful in terms of getting training to people who need it,” Warkenthien said. “But I am also a firm believer that people have to take some responsibility, too.”

Cox, who has been selling Bobcats for more than 30 years, said he thinks the company should take the lead and require its customers to complete training before they take a machine home. He said none of the farmers who have visited his dealership has ever asked for training.

“You have to respect this piece of equipment,” Cox said. “It’s got a lot of power. It can do a lot of damage.”