by Courtney Llewellyn
The top three industries that see worker fatalities are construction, transportation and then agriculture. But why is farming so dangerous? Machinery with aggressive parts, isolated workplaces, working alone, unpredictable animals, use of toxic chemicals and adverse weather are all reasons.
Additionally, “The work site and the home site are often the same location,” explained Randy Laurenz, research assistant with Michigan State University’s Agronomy Farm, during the recent MI Ag Ideas to Grow With. “Agriculture is unique in this way, with people who aren’t part of the business around and sometimes in harm’s way” – such as small children playing in the yard or Grandma coming to visit and parking where she shouldn’t.
“Youth are at greater risk of injury during farm work,” noted Hailey Harman, 4-H program coordinator for Cass County in Michigan. The risk is commonly due to lack of knowledge about hazards. “Some parents can incorrectly assume kids know how to use equipment because they’ve been around it and they’ve seen their parents operating it for a long time.” Lack of coordination, lack of experience, lack of maturity, lack of strength/endurance and physical size also contribute to injury risk for youth.
By law, youth of any age may work at any time in any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents. Anyone 16 or older may work any farm job at any time on any farm. Those under 16 are limited in what farm jobs they can do, and minors under 16 also cannot PTO-operated machinery, specialized power machines, work with breeding livestock or climb ladders and scaffolds over 20 feet. They cannot operate vehicles to transport passengers or be a passenger on a tractor. They are not permitted in siloes/manure pits/grain bins/fruit storage (confined spaces with low oxygen), nor can they handle or mix chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, sanitizers, oils, veterinary medicines or fuels). They’re also prohibited from handling a blasting agent or using ammonia. (State standards may be more stringent than the federal standards.)
“The rules are made to protect people,” Laurenz said. He listed the operator characteristics that increase risk of injury when operating ag machinery: being distracted by emotions (what’s going on in your life), fatigue (working long days), drugs and alcohol, being preoccupied (talking to friends and not keeping your mind on your job) and a lack of training and experience.
He said the activities frequently involved in farm injuries include tractor operation, machinery operation, vehicle operation and livestock handling. Tractor rollovers are especially dangerous, and older tractors often don’t have ROPS. ATVs, Gators and side-by-sides can sometimes travel fairly fast and they’re often operated off-road.
The characteristics of ag equipment that increase risk for operators and bystanders include speed, power, size, aggressive components (parts that can throw things, cut, chop or roll) and exposed parts.
There are many types of machine hazards in tractors and other farm equipment: pinch points, crush points, wrap points, cutting points, shear points and pull-in points. Operators also need to be aware of free-wheeling components, thrown objects, stored energy (like electric hazards), slips and falls, thermal energy (like hot mufflers or engines) and chemical energy (like batteries).
“Slips and falls are the number one cause of non-fatal injuries in agriculture,” Laurenz said. That’s due to the proliferation of tall structures, tall equipment, slippery surfaces, uneven surfaces and poor lighting. These can all be made worse with adverse weather conditions.
Youth also need to consider environmental hazards: darkness, UV light, heat/cold extremes, adverse weather – make sure to wear the appropriate clothing for agricultural work – dust and loud noise. All ag workers also need to be aware of overhead power lines, insects, snakes, wild animals, drainage or irrigation canals, ditches and streams, farm ponds/lagoons, frequent lightning, hills, holes and rough terrain.
“Be in the right frame of mind when you’re doing farm tasks so you’re not putting yourself in a situation to have an accident,” Laurenz said.
For more information on youth farm worker rules, check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet at dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/WHD/legacy/files/whdfs40.pdf.