It’s harvest time. A mother prepares to go to the field by downloading movies on a phone or tablet to keep her toddler quiet in the tractor; another carefully lines a laundry basket with a fluffy blanket for her infant. Both moms add drinks and snacks and they’re ready to go.
Later that day, the same mothers post photos on social media of their day in the field. They answer questions and explain how they secured their young children in the tractor. Their posts receive hundreds of likes and positive comments about how great it is that they’re “starting their kids off right while they’re young” or that “this is the best way to get them to love farming.”
Marsha Salzwedel disagrees. As director of the Outreach Core and project manager for the Agritourism Safety Project and Agricultural Youth Work Guidelines, Salzwedel said taking children to the field is an unsafe practice that should stop with this generation.
When parents receive positive feedback about taking babies to the field through social media or family events, such reinforcement helps to establish unsafe practices as normal. “The more people are reinforced, the more they’re encouraged to do it,” she said. “The more they perceive it as something ‘everybody does’ is another reason for them to continue to do something that isn’t safe.”
Many unsafe practices, including young children in or on tractors while tractors are operating, have been going on for generations. “It’s something their mother or grandmother did,” said Salzwedel, “almost like a family tradition in some instances. It’s hard to get people to break those family traditions because they’re used to doing it. They’ve been doing it for years and they will tell you they’ve never had any problems.”
What about that extra seat, the buddy seat, in the tractor – why not put a child there? Salzwedel said the appropriate name for the extra seat in the tractor or other farm equipment is “instructor seat.” “Those seats are designed for teaching somebody, typically 14 years old or older, to operate a tractor,” she said. “They are not designed for young children, and not designed to adequately restrain a child. They’re simply not made for that purpose.”
She further explained the dangers of using the instructor’s seat for a young child. “Those seats are not designed to hold a car seat and won’t restrain it the way it’s supposed to. It’s using something not designed for that purpose. Its placement in the cab is not the same as in the back seat of a car where we’d typically put a child’s car seat. A used car seat bolted to the floor of the tractor is not safe – it exposes young children to excess vibration and noise and worse, and there’s potential for chemicals and dust coming through the floor.”
Tractor rollovers are the number one killer of adults using tractors on farms. Rollover protection systems (ROPS) with properly fitted seat belts prevent 99% of tractor operator deaths, but they don’t protect children riding on a fender, in a laundry basket or sitting on an adult’s lap.
Not convinced? A quick read through the Ag Injury News accident database is sobering. A three-year-old was fatally injured when she fell from a tractor on which she was a passenger. A seven-year-old passenger on a trailer being pulled by a bulldozer was fatally injured after falling off and being run over by the bulldozer. A two-year-old passenger on a tractor was fatally injured after falling off. These are all true headlines, and each loss of life was completely preventable.
There are numerous incidents of children falling out of tractors with doors and off tractors when held on a lap or riding elsewhere. “We know the presence of a door, even one that locks, doesn’t guarantee safety for children,” said Salzwedel. “We have lots of cases where the tractor hit a bump in the field or turned a corner and the child fell against the door and the door opened even though it was locked, and the child was run over.” She recounted a tragic incident in which a young child riding in a combine was tossed through the front window and into the moving combine head.
Salzwedel frequently hears the notion that farm accidents “only happen to other people” who were perhaps not paying attention or not being safe. “When we talk with the families where something has happened, they thought it would never happen to them,” she said. “The other family was unlucky or a freak thing that happened. Suddenly it happened to them, and then it wasn’t something that happens to other people. When they start talking with others, they discover just how many other friends and family out there have had accidents.”
The other aspect of having young children in or on a tractor is that no matter the age of the second rider, their presence distracts the adult from the work they’re doing. “We know agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the world, and now you are setting yourself up with a distraction while performing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country,” said Salzwedel. “We know distracted work is dangerous work. We’re taking something that’s already dangerous and upping the danger level further by doing it while distracted. The adult is endangered because they’re working distracted, and the child is endangered because of the injury potential.” She added that tractor time is not quality bonding time because the adult cannot adequately supervise what a child is doing while they are driving or performing a farm job. This is especially true of toddlers who aren’t likely to sit still.
Serious accidents happen with small equipment too, and extra riders are often the victims. Salzwedel said riding lawnmowers are tractors, with the extra hazard of rapidly rotating, sharp blades underneath. “Some lawn tractors have more power than some utility tractors used in the field,” she said. “It can also throw projectiles – if a rock can break a window, imagine what can happen if a rock hits a baby or toddler on the head.”
Statistics prove that tractors are the leading cause of ag-related deaths and injuries among children, and Salzwedel said there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back this up. “It’s an established fact and has been so for years,” she said. “We also know the easiest way to prevent any types of injuries and fatalities is simply not taking the child into the workplace. We aren’t just battling an unsafe practice that some people may not even realize is unsafe – we’re also battling a family tradition.”
A list of age-appropriate farm tasks is available at nasdonline.org/1278/d001082/farm-safety-for-young-children.html.
by Sally Colby
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