Loading Up on Safety

Multi-terrain loaders (or compact track loaders) are compact machines that are equipped with similar components and technology to skid-steer loaders. The difference: multi-terrain loaders have a suspended-track undercarriage that promotes their productively in ground conditions like mud, snow, sand, sloped terrain and turf that often prevent wheeled machines from working at all. If you're used to working with skid-steer loaders, you'll need to make a few alterations to the standard practices for operation in order to work safely and productively in a tracked machine.


Take the time to read and understand the operations and maintenance manual (OMM). This is probably the most overlooked aspect of safety. It's important not to skip this step. If you have questions, contact your local loader dealer or manufacturer.


Conduct a thorough walk-around of the machine and jobsite each day before starting work. It's important to become familiar with the area, especially any changes of slope and hidden dangers like large ruts or plywood covering a hole. Note the underfoot conditions (dry, wet, gravel or ice). Pieces of rebar or scrap metal on the jobsite could cause damage if you were to make a turn on top of them. Remove these items if possible. If the job will require working in an enclosure or traveling through a tight space such as a yard gate, check for sufficient clearance.

After checking the jobsite, examine the machine for debris caught in the undercarriage or air intake vents, and other things that shouldn't be there. Inspect the tracks for damage. Just like tires, rubber tracks are susceptible to cuts and tears, so monitor them for damage and excessive wear. Also inspect the inside surface of the track, paying close attention to the condition of the track drive lugs (refer to the “track tension” section in your owner's manual if tension seems loose). The sprocket sleeves on the drive sprocket should turn freely. Tighten any loose hardware. Examine the engine for debris, damage, excessive wear and loose hardware. Check the fluid levels.

  • Adjusting Tension

    The tracks should not be overly tight or loose. Tracks that are too tight wear more quickly and tracks that are too loose can allow the drive lugs to jump over sprocket rollers, damaging the drive lugs. To check the tension, apply the recommended amount of weight to the midpoint of the track to cause it to deflect, then measure the amount of deflection and adjust the tension as needed. Consult the operator's manual for information specific to the track manufacturer. Note that new or newly-replaced all-rubber tracks may stretch a bit during the first few weeks of use, so check the track tension regularly, but adjust it only when necessary.

  • Safety Contact Points

    Maintain three points of contact — both hands and one foot, or both feet and one hand — while entering or exiting the machine. Always climb over the arms and bucket, never under them. To safely enter the machine, face the machine and use the safety steps on the machine and work tool to reach the cab. Then turn around and step backward into the cab to avoid bumping your head.

  • Peripherals

    Familiarize yourself with the cab interior and safety features before settling into the cab. Adjust the seat, mirror, fasten the seatbelt, lower the safety bar and test the horn. (In some cabs, the rear window is an emergency exit.) If operating a machine with a cab, shut the door before starting the engine. With the engine running, inspect the indicators and look for anything abnormal. Then follow the instructions in the OMM to ensure that the bucket or work tool is properly attached.

  • Tool Selection

    Selecting the right work tool for the job is important. Use a low-profile bucket with teeth for digging. Choose a bucket suited to the payload for load-and-carry operations. Always keep the bucket as low as possible and raise it only when necessary. This serves two purposes: It aids load retention, and helps to maintain a low center of gravity, which ensures better stability and a more comfortable ride for you. Operating capacities vary with machine model and size. Consult the manual for the specific capabilities of an individual machine.


The tracked configuration of multi-terrain loaders obviously enables them to work in a greater variety of conditions than wheeled machines. However, you need to make a few modifications to the standard methods for skid-steer loaders in order to work safely in these machines. Three areas require special care: operating and turning on slopes, navigating “transitions” or areas with changing slope and grading or backdragging.

  • Working on Slopes.
    • Keep the heaviest end of the machine uphill.
    • Carry loads as low as possible.
    • Avoid unusually heavy loads. Always carry the lightest load possible when working on a slope.

The proper technique for turning on a slope is as follows: When turning to go down a slope, first stop the machine, then slowly turn the machine while backing down the slope. When turning to go up a slope, first stop the machine, then turn the machine while slowly backing down the slope or until the machine is facing the desired direction of travel, then proceed forward. Avoid making direct 90-degree turns when operating on a slope. Sharp turns cause unnecessary wear and can shove material between the track and roller wheels. In some cases, it can even result in track derailment and machine rollovers, so opt for three-point or “Y” turns instead.


Places with a change in slope or elevation, such as a curb, ledge or area where a level surface changes into a slope, require extra care. When traveling over a transition, the machine should be 90 degrees to the transition. The machine's tracks should always be fully supported by the ground. Not only is the machine's stability compromised if part of a track is hanging off a ledge, but the roller wheels are subjected to side stress and the wheels could ride up and over the drive lugs.


The proper technique for backdragging or grading with a multi-terrain loader is different from a skid-steer loader. Some skid-steer operators maximize down-pressure on the bucket and raise the machine's front tires when backdragging. However, the same technique with a multi-terrain loader compromises traction, as less of the track remains on the ground. Operators should backdrag with the loader arms in “float” position instead, applying only enough downward pressure to smooth the surface, not to lift the machine.


A few preventive measures at the end of the day will help keep the machine going strong.

  • Let the engine idle down before turning it off.

  • Expecting freezing temperatures? Run the machine forward and reverse before shutting down to reduce moisture build-up.

  • Look for damage, wear, debris, loose hardware and cut hoses during an end-of-day walk-around.

  • Check fluid levels, engine and grease points.

  • Clean off the machine and undercarriage, especially the front/rear idler wheels and drive sprocket areas.

  • Make sure the key has been removed and lock the machine, if equipped.

Good maintenance practices and safe operating procedures help keep machines working properly. The operator's manual is an excellent resource for further details about a specific brand and model of multi-terrain loader. These manuals contain information about safety features, specifications, operating capacities and more to help the operator maximize the machine's capabilities and continue operating profitably.

Chris Key is a commercial supervisor for Caterpillar Inc. (Peoria, III.).

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