Quite often the smallest moving parts on a farm get overlooked, and that oversight can prove to be the most disastrous when it comes to children.
Agriculture has long been considered one of the most dangerous workplaces in the U.S., and there are some sobering statistics about the littlest farm hands:
- A child dies in an ag-related incident about every three days.
- About 33 children are seriously injured daily in an ag-related incident.
- Roughly 60% of child ag-related injuries happen to children who are not working.
- Since 2009, more youth have died working in agriculture than in all other industries combined.
Those youth fatalities are caused by machinery, motor vehicles and drowning, and the top cause of youth injuries on the farm are falls, followed by animals, and machinery and vehicles.
Three experts in youth safety on farms and ranches say these accidents do not need to happen. Marsha Salzwedel, National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety; Jana Davidson, Progressive Agriculture Foundation; and Diane Rohlman, University of Iowa College of Public Health, spoke during a recent webinar in the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University Extension Farm & Ranch Safety Webinar Series.
“When we think about kids in farming, they get involved at a very early age, and that’s great,” Rohlman said. “We want them involved especially if it’s a family farm, but we need to be careful that we protect them because we all know there are a lot of hazards on the farms, and kids may not know what those hazards are. They’re not as experienced as adults, and they also have smaller body sizes so they may not be able to do the same things.”
Benefits to farm life
Salzwedel grew up on a farm and still owns one with her brothers and sisters. It keeps her tuned into the benefits of having been raised on a farm and raising children with agricultural roots: instilling a good work ethic, teaching responsibility, providing lots of room for children to play, and working and bonding with family.
“I wasn’t aware of just how hazardous this job could be,” she said. “That was a real eye-opener for me when I started at the Children’s Center, and we start getting all these news articles coming across our desks of all these children that were being injured.”
That led Salzwedel to look at ways to protect children on farms, such as the creation of safe play areas on farms.
Rohlman said it’s common to focus on eliminating traumatic injuries, but she stressed the need to think long term. “We need to think about hearing loss. There’s a lot of noisy equipment and noisy places on a farm, and that’s going to have a long-term impact.” There is also the potential for respiratory effects when working with livestock on farms.
Risks increase with non-farm kids
According to Salzwedel, about 900,000 children in the U.S. live on farms. “We know that more than half of those kids work on those farms,” she said. “And we also know that an additional 260-some thousand youth are hired to work on farms.” That’s well over a million children across the U.S. who are living or working in an agricultural environment.
With the dwindling farm population, many times those non-farm children hired may not be familiar with farming activities and duties, thus opening up potential for even greater risk.
“If you hire a child who’s worked on the farm for a number of years, they’re going to be familiar with animals and animal behaviors, and tractors and machinery,” Salzwedel said. “But if you hire a youth who’s never been on a farm, they’re not going to recognize the hazards that are in that environment. You know to not walk up on the back end of a horse.”
The population base with limited agriculture knowledge is exploding, with many youth being four to five generations removed from the farm. The lack of agriculture knowledge among the general populace has spurred the growth of agritourism. “We have around 23 million children that go out to farms and ranches, and a lot of them are totally unfamiliar with the environment,” Salzwedel said.
In a normal year, Progressive Agriculture Foundation would put on 400 “Safety Days” across North America, each geared to a specific youth age group. “We had to switch gears last year and move a lot virtually, but we were still able to reach kids,” Davidson said.
In addition to the Progressive Agriculture Foundation Safety Days, various organizations such as 4-H and FFA also host farm safety days geared toward youth. The messages learned at such events need to be brought home to the adults operating the farm.
“We tell the children to go home and teach your siblings, teach your parents, teach your grandparents,” Davidson said. “So many kids will come up, and they will tell on their parents and grandparents saying, ‘My dad does not do this.’ We tell them to go home and teach them what you learned. I always say the kid should never go home that day, and at the dinner table without good discussion points.”
Getting safety strategies out to children to share with their parents and grandparents — or getting that knowledge out to adults to use when supervising children and assigning tasks on farms — is crucial. “We know that if we can get small children out of the agricultural worksites and get adults to assign work based on a youth’s abilities, we can reduce injuries and fatalities on farms — and children can grow up healthy and whole,” Salzwedel said.
Safety resources online
There are many farm safety resources available free online. Here are just a few:
- Progressive Agriculture Foundation Safety Days schedule
- National Farm Medicine Center and National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety’s Cultivate Safety
- University of Iowa College of Public Health training and materials for supervisor, parents and teachers