If there’s one thing we know in the midst of this COVID-19 uncertainty, it’s that kids are home more often than usual right now. Hybrid learning, virtual learning, compressed school days and various combinations thereof have created a situation where more kids are home more frequently than in the past.
For a lot of farm kids, that’s been cause for celebration. Home time has meant more time with livestock, more time with grandparents, and more time to run tractors and help on the farm. All good things, as kids, parents, grandparents and even farm safety experts would agree — but those same safety experts say now is prime time to do a gut check on farm safety.
“We’re not trying to get kids off the farm,” says Marsha Salzwedel, ag youth safety specialist at the National Farm Medicine Center. “There are a lot of benefits to kids working on the farm. It can help them develop a sense of responsibility; it creates a love for the land; they learn about the life and death cycle.
“We just want them to be safe while they’re there,” she adds.
Salzwedel acknowledges what many farmers know: Agriculture is one of the most dangerous professions in the country. That’s true for adults. Add a child into that scenario, and it distracts adults from dangerous work and makes it harder for them to adequately supervise that child. It’s hard to deny the risks involved.
“Tractors are the leading cause of fatalities of farm children,” Salzwedel says.
So how to keep kids safe on the farm — at all ages? She offers up a few ideas:
1. Evaluate their skills. Some teenagers thrive on running equipment; others may not be as ready. Check out cultivatesafety.org, a project of the National Farm Medicine Center. They have an interactive work guidelines section that can help you determine whether a young person is ready and capable to do the job.
2. Think cognitive ability. Salzwedel says those guidelines are more than just, “Can they reach the pedals?” The guidelines ask whether they’re mature enough to make decisions, whether they exhibit impulsive behavior, and whether they can remember a five-step process without prompting. “It’s not just physical but cognitive as well,” she says.
3. Match skills. In some parts of the country, migrant labor is less available than it once was, which means farms may be hiring more young people to fill the gap. Cultivatesafety.org offers up similar work guidelines for hiring young people. “More youth die working in ag than in all other industries combined,” Salzwedel says. “There’s a mismatch between what they’re doing and what they’re capable of doing safely.”
4. Be aware of small children at home. We’re used to having kids home on the farm in the summer, but less so in the fall and spring, which are inherently busier and more dangerous seasons. “With children around more during busier seasons, the potential for injury goes up,” Salzwedel says.
5. Watch wagons. Kids like to stand on the side of grain wagons and watch it be filled, and it’s easy for them to fall in — or climb in. Salzwedel says given the size of equipment today, operators may not even be aware a child is there. And if they fall in, they can be engulfed in seconds.
6. Beware of run-over accidents. Salzwedel says skid steers with big round bales are tough to see around, especially to spot small, short children. It’s also difficult to see objects from tractors and other equipment.
7. Practice ATV safety. Statistics are often hard to come by on farm injuries, but Salzwedel says this one’s crystal clear: Since the pandemic started, ATV sales have gone up and emergency room doctors have seen more ATV injuries.
8. Band together for child care. Salzwedel understands parents have scrambled to find child care, whether they work on or off the farm. She’s even heard of parents putting kids in stalls to avoid cows or other livestock. But she’s also heard of creative, strategic farm neighborhoods that have banded together to manage child care. “They have one or two adults watch the kids, while the rest of the adults get work done. Then they switch off so the others can get work done,” she explains. Other options: reach out to neighbor kids and churches. “There are strategies and alternatives to taking children to your work site,” she says.
9. Use play areas. Again, check out cultivatesafety.org for help creating a safe play area on your farm.
Salzwedel says there is good news in all of this: Farm families have made tremendous progress in keeping their children safe. Since the early 2000s, they’ve cut the number of nonfatal farm injuries in half.