What's the most common - but usually undocumented - cause of death and disabling injuries on U.S. farms?

Operator fatigue, says Dan West, safety education specialist with the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health at Cooperstown.

"A person is not going to be thinking as clearly or be able to react as quickly to problems when tired and under stress. And that's when mistakes and accidents happen," West says.

But there are some simple ways to reduce fatigue or operator stress - and risk of accident or injury this season, West notes. He offers these suggestions:

* Take breaks. Get off the harvester and stretch your legs for 10 to 15 minutes every 2-2_1/2 hours.

* Drink plenty of liquids. Dehydration can affect your ability to think clearly. Drink plenty of water and juice. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages.

* Eat regular meals. Eat healthy foods, but stop the machine and rest while you eat.

Wear hearing protection. Working with continuous, loud noise can increase stress and fatigue and result in long-term hearing loss. A hearing screening conducted among New York state farmers several years ago showed 80% of farmers tested had significant hearing loss, West says. He recommends ear plugs or ear muffs with a noise reduction rating of 25 or higher.

"You can still hear a conversation or be aware that the machine is running while wearing such devices, yet still get good hearing protection."

* Get enough sleep. When you are tired, you make mistakes.

Along with maintaining your health, West advises taking the time to safely deal with header plugging or malfunctions.

"Turn off the machine every time you get out of the operator's seat. This will greatly reduce your risk of entanglement. Also make sure that guards and shields are in place, and replace rusted or damaged ones."

Anyone operating a machine like a forage harvester must understand how the machine works and the purpose of the guards and shields, he says.

"Pinch points, shear points, wrap points, crush points and stored-energy points are all very hazardous. But if all guards and shields are in place, most of these points will be covered.

"Many points can cause entanglement, and you should make sure that anyone operating the harvester has a good understanding of exactly where those dangers lie," West notes.

The operator's manual is an overlooked source of safety information. It can show less-experienced operators where a machine's danger points are. It also offers correct safety procedures.

"It should be in the machine, in a handy, protected place where the operator can refer to it."

Make sure equipment taken onto any road is fitted with a bright, slow-moving vehicle (SMV) emblem, West adds.

He concludes: "During the busy harvest, you need to be able to make snap decisions. And the most important factors in staying safe when you make those decisions are making sure you are functioning at your best and that your machine is, too."N