Every three days, a child dies in an agriculture-related incident, and each day at least 33 children are injured.
Some 47% of fatalities result from tractor and motor vehicle accidents, according to the National Farm Medicine Center and National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety (NFMC & NCCRAHS). Some 20% come from contact with machinery, including entanglements in PTO; another 13% result from animal/human contact, and miscellaneous causes make up the remaining 20%.
Agriculture, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ranks as one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Several factors make farming especially hazardous for children, says Marsha Salzwedel, NFMC & NCCRAHS project scientist.
Salzwedel says since 2009 more young people have died working in agriculture than in all other industries combined.
A lot of things make farming dangerous, Salzwedel said in a recent Farm Press interview. "The inherent dangers in farm work, coupled with teen characteristics such as the tendency to take risks, behave impulsively, and a drive to prove themselves, increase the risk of injury," she said. "Youth often think they know more than they do and may have a limited sense of vulnerability."
She says lack of work experience is another factor. "Most youth are enthusiastic and excited to do things like drive a tractor for the first time, and sometimes that enthusiasm can outweigh good judgment, especially with no previous experience to temper their enthusiasm. When you couple this with youths' tendency to overestimate their abilities, it increases the potential for injury."
Salzwedel added that the size and power of farm equipment contribute to risks, as does working with large animals, which can be unpredictable. Stress factors such as time constraints around planting and harvesting, with farmers and workers putting in "12, 14, or 16 hours a day due to limited time for planting or harvesting, or trying to get something done before weather changes," can create pressure on all workers, including youth.
Monitor and assess
She encourages parents to monitor children and assess their abilities to perform tasks. She adds that research shows that lots of parents and their children "tend to overestimate a young person's abilities. They may say, 'I did this at this age, so my child should be able to do it.'
"I am a farm girl myself, so I have lived this and understand where it comes from. But often, it's when we overestimate a youth's abilities that things go wrong."
And some of the protections that are "built in" for hired youth, such as federal child labor regulations, don't apply to youth working on their family farms, increasing the need for parents and youth to realistically assess a youth's ability to safely perform a task.
Salzwedel acknowledges that farm kids may mature ahead of their urban counterparts and that growing up on a farm offers significant advantages, including developing a sense of responsibility, a good work ethic and an appreciation for the cycles of life. However, both parents and youth still need to be realistic about a youth's abilities.
"A mismatch between youths' abilities and the tasks they are assigned can have tragic consequences. It's one of the main causes of injuries and fatalities to youth working in agriculture," Salzwedel said.
She explains that not all on-farm youth-related accidents occur during work. In some cases, injuries occur while children are playing or just watching. A farm, Salzwedel says, is the only work site in the U.S. where children of any age can be present. "They might be working, playing or visiting.
"Huge benefits can come from children and youth living and working on farms," she said. "They learn responsibility, a good work ethic, and to respect the land." Overall, rural and farm kids are healthier, with lower incidence of asthma, allergies and other ailments. "We recognize a lot of benefits to growing up on a farm. However, farm parents are raising children in one of the country's most dangerous worksites."
The dangerous nature of the farm worksite is why making that workplace safer should be the top priority of farm parents.
Salzwedel recommends preventive measures.
"For working youth, assign appropriate chores," she says. "Consider ability-appropriate instead of age-appropriate. All 14-year olds do not have the same abilities. One may be tall, strong and mature, able to reach tractor pedals without difficulty and to easily sling hay bales. Another may be shorter, not as strong and unable to throw those bales," she says.
She recommends parents consider their youth's cognitive skills and traits, as well as physical ability. "A young worker with a short attention span, who behaves impulsively, or feels like he or she will live forever may not be suited to operate farm equipment. It's important to assess a youth's abilities from all perspectives: physical, cognitive and mental."
Training is crucial. "Parents or supervisors must teach a youth how to do the job correctly and safely," Salzwedel says. "Encourage young workers to ask questions and make certain they are proficient before you turn them loose."
She suggests that training should include the trainee doing specific tasks correctly four or five times before they do it on their own. "And even then, they need supervision, regardless of their age."
She says equipment and workplaces must be safe. "Make certain that equipment is mechanically sound, and all guards and safety features are in place. For example, power take-offs (PTOs) should have shields and tractors should have rollover protection structures (ROPS).
"If hazards exist in work areas, address and mitigate. If a barn or other enclosed structure is dusty, an adult should ventilate it before the youth goes in. Provide personal protective equipment, such as safety glasses and dust masks."
More information and guidelines for assigning tasks and training youth for farm work is available at https://cultivatesafety.org/work/.
Salzwedel says family farms exemplify some of the most revered values in American life, including responsibility, good work ethic, and respect. And farm parents are devoted to their children's well-being. By following guidelines for assigning appropriate tasks and providing training and proper supervision, parents can enable their children to reap the benefits of living and working on farms while keeping them safe.