Because we have a 13-year-old on our farm who is just learning how to operate machinery, it seems important to take note of Canadian Agricultural Safety Week, March 15 to 21 this year. Farming is a dangerous job for experienced farmers; bringing children and teenagers near the dangerous equipment in our back yard is a real risk.
Every season, farm families weigh the risks and benefits of having their children work on the farm. There is no doubt that farm work is a risky proposition. But there are so many benefits. We want them to grow up with a strong work ethic, and to feel the satisfaction of a finished job. We know they can learn a lot by working with their parents. There are times when we just really need that extra pair of hands.
We are very lucky to have a naturally cautious son, but we also know that things can go wrong, even when a “new” farmer is working near a parent and following the rules.
The U.S. publication Progressive Farmer reported this summer that, in the United States, 33 children are injured every day due to farm-related injury. The three most common causes, they say, are falls, animals and machinery. Some of these injuries are minor; others will impact these kids for a lifetime. One of my son’s friends had to sit out the hockey season after an incident with an ATV on the farm. I took a mental count and realized I know three adults who lost an arm due to a childhood run-in with a grain auger.
And kids who escape these accidents with just an injury are the lucky ones. Progressive Farmer further reported that every three days in the United States a child dies due to an ag-related injury. The main causes in this case are tractors, machinery, ATVs, other vehicles and drowning. I do not even want to imagine the mental toll that this would take.
Last summer the Western Producer reported on a presentation in Iowa by an expert from the National Centre for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. Marsha Salzwedel told her audience that, although injury numbers are improving, the number of children killed in farm accidents is staying stubbornly level. This article included fatality numbers for Canada: 250 kids younger than 15 from 1990 to 2009. That’s too many.
Keeping them safe
No two kids are the same. The 13-year-olds I know have wildly different mental ages. They are operating at different levels of maturity, with widely varying skill levels. There are a few who could probably operate a tractor more safely than some adults. But there are a lot who can barely manage to run a vacuum. It’s hard to say “no” when a child or teenager wants to help on the farm, but that’s the only answer if the kid just doesn’t have the attention span to do the job safely. Maybe they’re not quite ready for a grain truck, but perhaps there’s something a little less risky they could do, so they can still be part of the operation, but with a little less risk?
The key to balancing the risks against the benefits is knowing your child and their skills. Of course, accidents can happen to the more careful and skilled child or adult, but as long as we do our best to explain the rules and safety measures, and don’t ask (or allow) a child or teen to do a job they’re just not ready to do, we are on the way to lowering those fatality rates.