FARM SAFETY Too much automation can reduce operator awareness and contribute to more worker injuries
Today’s farm machinery is bigger, faster, more powerful and more expensive than ever before.
And in many cases, it also offers a greater level of automation, taking pressure off the operator to perform mundane tasks accurately and efficiently, such as steering in a straight line between headlands.
However, according to University of Saskatchewan researcher Behzad Bashiri, too much automation on the farm can reduce operator awareness and contribute to greater levels of worker injury and damage to machinery.
Just ask any farm operator who has fallen asleep as his farm implement drives through a headland and into a ditch, ravine or power pole.
“Today, we see automation being implemented in almost every aspect of our lives,” said Bashiri, a post-doctoral fellow at the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture (CCHSA).
“In any simple task that we do during the day, we see some level of automation in the process, compared to say two decades ago. Agricultural machinery is no exception.”
For the past few years, Bashiri has dedicated much of his research to examining the link between operator performance and rising levels of automation in farm machines.
In his office, Bashiri shows photos of million dollar farm rigs swamped in sloughs, tangled in hydro transmission towers and tipped on their sides.
In most cases, today’s modern farm machines are not fully autonomous, Bashiri said.
They offer some level of automation, but they still require an operator who can monitor implement performance in changing field conditions, turn machines at the end of the field, operate hydraulics and navigate around obstacles.
And while automation can reduce operating costs and offer higher levels of productivity and efficiency, it can also cause injury and result in unexpected costs when operator errors occur.
“With automation, we are trying to reduce workloads on operators and accomplish tasks more efficiently, but still we see deadly or disadvantageous aspects of automation.”
When Bashiri was a postgraduate student at the University of Manitoba, he used a tractor simulator to study human performance and behaviour in response to varying levels of automation in agricultural machinery.
Operator tasks included driving or navigating the machines as well as supervisory duties such as monitoring implements to ensure proper depth and seeding rates.
Using experienced machinery operators as test subjects, Bashiri applied different levels of automation to both navigating and supervisory functions.
Operator responsibilities ranged from full manual operation of the tractor and implement to full automation.
“We found really interesting results,” he said.
“As long as the tasks were being done by the operator himself or it was shared (between the operator and the semi-autonomous machine) … we could see that mental workload and situational awareness of the operator remained within an acceptable range.”
But as soon as the level of automation was increased, the operators’ mental workloads and situational awareness dropped.
Situational awareness is critically important “because if you’re given a task and you’re not aware of what’s going on in your surroundings, you’re in trouble,” Bashiri said.
For an operator who has dozed off and driven through the headland, regaining situational awareness may take only a split second.
But during that time, operators can make potentially fatal errors, such as oversteering to avoid an obstacle and rolling their machines on uneven terrain.
Bashiri’s work suggests that while some level of automation can reduce stress levels on machine operators, too much automation can expose operators and machines to a greater risk of injury or damage.
In other words, if mental workloads and situational awareness are either too high or too low, performance of duties decreases.
So what’s the take-home message for farmers? Don’t over-rely on your machinery, and remember that some level of operator engagement must be maintained to reduce the risk of injury.
“Make sure at all times that you know what’s going on around you and make sure that you know all of the details of your machine,” he said.
Adequate rest is also required to ensure operator alertness, he added.
“In busy seasons, most farmers are in a rush. They’ll work long hours, 14 or 15 hours a day, and sometimes even at night, maybe 24 hours a day,” he said.
But they have to make sure that if they’re working long hours, they try to get rest, at least periodically.”