Danger lurks: Childhood agriculture safety improves due to work of several organizations

Rural America gives residents an opportunity to get back to nature and get a breath of fresh air. For many raising their families on a farm or ranch it is an ideal situation. But there’s also danger lurking for those involved in agriculture, especially for the younger generation.

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety recently celebrated 25 years of preventing injuries associated with the agricultural worksite. The worksites of farms and ranches are one of the nation’s most hazardous, and the only one where children of any age may be present.

Barbara Lee, Ph.D., director of the NCCRAHS, said back in the late 1980s there was an article that came out in “Successful Farming” magazine with the headline, “We kill too many farm kids.” It sent shock waves through the farming community and made people ask what was going on.

Back then estimates suggested 300 children died from farm fatalities each year in the United States, and another analysis showed about 300,000 serious child farm injuries occurred.

“So those are really big numbers. It really got the attention of people. And we decided we needed to look at this more seriously,” Lee said. “Because up until that time, most of the work in farm safety had addressed adults and traditional farmers.”

At the time there was really no good data to rely on, as well as no youth work standards.

“There were child labor laws and regulations, but they were very broad,” she said. “And of course, the family farm exemptions meant that it wasn’t comparable to other industries.”

There were also agricultural norms of what children should do and can do in terms of farming and ranching tasks. The expectation that agriculture was a hazardous industry just meant there were going to be unavoidable injuries and deaths.

“Most important to this initiative was there was no responsible federal or state agency that got children and farming kind of fell through the cracks because it wasn’t like child welfare or child protection in general settings,” she said. “And it wasn’t like an occupational and occupational situation.”

Lee said no entity really wanted to take charge and there were very few safety resources specific to children.

After NCCRAHS was formed, the first effort was to develop voluntary guidelines for the types of work children should be doing in agriculture.

“(Things like) tell us about how to have safe place play areas on farms, which in itself was a bit controversial,” she said. “Some folks said just you shouldn’t even have play areas out there.”

For each of these types of activities, the group tried to gain consensus of key stakeholders—farm safety specialists, farm organizations, farm parents, and groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics. The stakeholders collectively had to gauge whether or not it was feasible to set high standards or make them reasonable and fit certain situations.

“We also developed model policies for employers who are hiring young workers, and develop recommendations for off-farm childcare,” she said.

Working to prevent

Marsha Salzwedel, project scientist and agricultural youth safety specialist at the National Children’s Center, became part of the founding organizations for the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network in 1999. Since that time the organization has grown and recently switched to an online community. It now has 162 organizations as part of the community.

There are groups from academics, safety and health professionals, Extension personnel, farmers and farm parents, ag industry manufacturers and a wide variety of other organizations.

“But the one thing that they all have in common is they’re all interested in child ag safety and health,” she said. “And they all want to work toward making that and making improvements in that arena.”

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There’s been a number of campaigns and guidelines through the years. Probably the most popular was the “keep kids off tractors” campaign.

The organization recently reworked an all-terrain vehicle campaign to include UTVs and will be launching it sometime in June.

Salzwedel said the NCC Cultivate Safety website has been developed in the past few years and is specifically geared towards farm parents, farm owners, farm operators and media.

Salzwedel said the number of youth who died from agricultural related incidents 25 years ago was around 300 a year. Now it’s just “slightly over 100.”

Ag worksites are one of the most dangerous areas, and only in the U.S. can children of any age be present. When talking about younger children, 60% of the ag-related injuries happen to children who are not working.

“So a lot of those are the extra riders on equipment and children that are being taken into a worksite,” she said. “We also know that when it comes to fatalities, that the number of ag related youth worker fatalities is higher than all other industries combined.”

The three most common causes of child ag fatalities are motor vehicles, drowning and machinery. Animals are also one of the most common causes of injuries.

“But it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not talking about just injuries and fatalities,” she said. “That’s not the only issues that we have to deal with when it comes to children on farms and ranches. And this has become very evident over the last couple of years with the advent of the COVID pandemic.”

Even prior to that there were other things to deal with—things like zoonotic diseases, hearing issues, vibration, dust, mold and other types of hazards commonly seen on farms and ranches.

The best strategy for preventing injuries and fatalities to young children on farms and ranches is one many farm or ranch parents don’t want to hear.

“Keeping young children off the farm ranch worksite absolutely is the best strategy,” she said. “The safety strategies vary a little bit depending on whether the children are younger and not working or whether they’re actually working.”

Keeping kids away from tractors and keeping them out of the worksite are two of the best strategies, but not always the most popular.

“Especially as these types of behaviors tend to go against the traditions,” she said. “For those of us that grew up on farms, we probably did all of that when we were growing up and just didn’t realize at that time just how dangerous those practices were.”

When talking about youth working on farms and ranches, it becomes more important that parents ensure the work they’re doing is age and, more importantly, ability appropriate. The majority of the deaths of youth working in agriculture are due to youth doing work that doesn’t match their physical or cognitive abilities.

“If we can match up those abilities and make sure that youth can actually safely perform the job, we can eliminate a lot of those injuries and fatalities,” she said. “It’s also important that we ensure the environment is as safe as possible.”

Addressing hazards and providing appropriate personal protective equipment, as well as ensuring all youth are trained adequately for the job and are proficient at the job are important before the operator lets them perform work on their own.

“And to be perfectly honest with you this is all really good strategies regardless of the age of the worker,” Salzwedel said.

Keeping kids safe

Jana Davidson, program manager of Progressive Agriculture Foundation, said the foundation’s mission is to provide the education, the training and the resources to make farm ranch and rural life safer and healthier for all children and their communities.

PAF hosts safety days throughout the U.S., and in 2019, the group held 388 events. COVID-19 put a halt to many in-person events in 2020 and 2021.

“We had to really restructure what we were doing and have a lot of our programming moves to virtual opportunities and online resources to still keep safety at the forefront during that time but our in person events weren’t happening like they did back in 2019,” she said.

But the comeback has been a strong one, and by mid-May she’s got 458 applications for events in 2022.

In 2019 the events had reached about 80,000 youth, with about 20,000 volunteers in the communities. Davidson said her organization is partners in youth farm safety, and “it really is where research meets outreach.”

“We really are the outreach folks. We are going to the farm shows. We are going to the events, we’re talking about this,” she said. “But again, that research that the Children’s Center has provided helps back up our program. Really, really shows what we’re doing is important.”

Resource sharing from the Children’s Center with its safety coordinators has created a great partnership. From the fact sheets to the youth ag worker guidelines, to the ag media guidelines—it’s all important.

“Sometimes the parents come to us—maybe it’s at a farm show, maybe it’s after our safety day and they want to know—OK, now what can we do?” she said. “And a lot of times we will point them in the direction of the resources created by the National Children’s Center.”

Davidson said PAF also serves as connectors.

“A good example, we had a family. This young man, I believe 29 years old, was involved in a manure pit incident and passed away. His family wanted to do something about it,” she said. “They were able to have a Progressive Agriculture Safety Day in his honor, in his memory, to prevent this from happening to others.”

It’s nice to be able to call on folks throughout the country to help with the PAF mission, according to Davidson.

For more information about the PAF visit www.progressiveag.org/. For more information about the NCCRAHS visit https://cultivatesafety.org/.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].