A popular social media site recently included a chilling request for prayer after an accident that had just happened. A newborn beef calf was missing and three young children, all under the age of 12, decided to search for the calf. The three children climbed onto a 4-wheeler, drove off, and at some point crashed. All were hospitalized, but only one was released the same day. One child was flown to a trauma center and the third died. The children were probably accustomed to using the 4-wheeler on the farm as a recreational vehicle and thought nothing of piling on for what they thought was the right thing to do.
Farmers know their work is dangerous, yet they continue to subject children to the same hazardous conditions they work in themselves. Sometimes it takes the unfortunate accident of a young relative or neighbor that results in serious injury or death before farm families take measures to protect young children on the farm.
Marsha Salzwedel, agricultural youth safety specialist at National Children’s Center for World Agriculture Health and Safety, says farm families are quick to talk about the benefits of raising children on the farm. There’s plenty of room for kids to play, and farm life instills passion, love and respect for the land. Young people form lifelong friendships with other farm kids and also develop a work bond with their own family. They learn about life and death, and have an opportunity to grow in character as they learn about work ethic and responsibility.
But farm life is risky. Salzwedel says a young person is injured or dies in a farm-related incident about every three days. “It is a very dangerous work site for children,” she said. “Agriculture is our nation’s most dangerous occupation, and it’s also the only work site in the United States where children of any age can be present. Keeping visitors and friends safe when they visit the farm is also a concern.”
Salzwedel says the number of occupational fatalities among workers under the age of 16 is high, and there are more youth killed working in agriculture than in all other industries combined. “Falls are the number one cause of injuries, followed by animals, and machinery and vehicles,” she said. “Machinery and vehicles include ATVs, tractors and other farm equipment. “How can adults address these challenges and risks while still allowing young people to benefit from living on the farm? Salzwedel explains that many accidents are due to young people performing tasks beyond their capability. “Children doing work that doesn’t match their developmental level is associated with an increased injury and fatality risk,” she said. “If a 14-year old is unable to comply with a certain assessment for that age group, they should not be doing the job.”
Adults should make sure certain aspects of training are in place to make the job safe for the youth, such as training youth to call an adult to handle equipment malfunctions. “A lot of injuries happen when youth try to fix things themselves,” said Salzwedel. “Children and youth tend to be reluctant to ask questions and contact an adult when something goes wrong. We need to let them know that it’s okay for them to contact an adult if something breaks down.”
Children who are six and under should be kept out of the farm work site. “A lot of the injuries and upwards of 60 percent of fatalities occur in children under 10 years old,” said Salzwedel. “Child care is the best option if it’s available, but it can be a challenge in rural areas. If childcare isn’t an option, we strongly recommend creating a safe play area on the farm. That play area is fenced in so kids can’t accidentally run out in front of farm equipment, and children are out of hazardous areas.”
Salzwedel hears from farmers that they want to nurture their children’s interest in farming, which means they want to take kids to the farm work site. “There are better ways that are safer,” she said. “There are toys and games — everything from ride-on toys and sandbox toys to farm sets and farm simulator video games. There are a lot of ways you can generate interest without taking kids to the work site.”
Farmers also want to take kids to the field to teach them about the growing cycle. Salzwedel recommends teaching that lesson in the garden, where it’s much safer. “Gardening is a great way to nurture an interest in farming,” she said. “It’s important that you give young people tools that are ergonomically correct and fit the size of their hands and that they can use without hurting themselves.”
One of the biggest issues for farmers through the generations is the tradition of taking children along in the tractor. “Tractors are responsible for almost half the fatalities of young children on farms,” said Salzwedel. “While it may be a tradition to give the kids a ride on the tractor, it’s a very dangerous one. We strongly recommend that you don’t put children in tractors, even if there’s a buddy seat. Those are intended as an instructor’s seat for people who are learning to drive a tractor and aren’t built for small children. The safest place for your child is out of the farm work site, not as an extra rider on a farm tractor.”
If a young person is going to be driving a tractor, they should be able to easily reach and operate the controls while they’re in the seatbelt. If they can’t, they shouldn’t be doing the job. Adults should discuss hazards with the young person and reduce as many of those hazards as possible. “Youth should know that they should never have an extra rider on the tractor,” said Salzwedel. “They should know they shouldn’t operate equipment at high speeds.”
Every farm should have a communication plan and an emergency response plan so that both youth and adults can stay in contact with each other when necessary, and so the youth knows when not to be using a particular device. “If the youth has a cell phone to contact an adult in case of an emergency, the communication plan should clearly outline when the youth should not be using the phone,” said Salzwedel. “For example, they shouldn’t text while driving.”
ATVs and UTVs are used for both work and recreation, and can be a big help on farms and ranches. But as the example in the social media post so poignantly brings to life, these vehicles are becoming more of a risk for children. It’s critical that these vehicles are used correctly and the youth is old enough to use it. “We often see in injury and fatality reports a child who is 10 or 11 years old operating a full-size ATV,” said Salzwedel. “They simply don’t have the weight, the reach or mental ability to react fast enough and maneuver these vehicles. It’s important that adults make sure youth are old enough and can operate these vehicles safely.”
More information and safety resources for farm families can be found at www.cultivatesafety.org.