With a blunt and controversial message, a national farm safety group has launched an education campaign aimed at keeping children younger than 12 off tractors.
The “tough love” campaign from the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network comes as a child dies from injuries on a U.S. farm, on average, every 3.5 days. The leading cause of those deaths is the tractor, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of farm fatalities of children under 15, according to youth safety specialists at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
Many farm children regularly ride tractors, alone or with family members. Sometimes it starts with an infant riding in the lap of a parent, grandparent or older sibling engaged in farm work.
Even if the tractor doesn’t overturn, there are many ways someone can be thrown from it. Sudden stops, driving over holes or a sharp turn can cause extra riders to lose their grip and footing.
The mere presence of a child can be distracting to the operator, increasing the chances of a mishap, said Marsha Salzwedel, a youth safety specialist at the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, also based in Marshfield.
The safety campaign’s goal of not allowing children under 12 to be on or near tractors might be unpopular or upsetting to parents and grandparents, Salzwedel said, since riding a tractor is a childhood tradition in rural areas. But she’s reviewed accident reports where a child as young as a toddler fell off a tractor operator’s lap and was crushed by the tire or machinery in tow.
“It’s easier to bury a tradition than a child,” Salzwedel said.
Not even a tractor cab ensures safety. A 3-year-old Wisconsin boy was killed after he grabbed a cab’s door handle for support when the tractor hit a bump, Salzwedel said. The boy fell out of the cab and was run over by the tractor operated by his father.
The enclosed cab, or a seat belt that doesn’t fit properly, may provide a false sense of security.
“We receive story after story of tractors hitting a bump, a kid falls against the door and it opens,” Salzwedel said. She also heard of a child killed when he fell through the window of a grain combine and was pulled into the machine’s harvesting mechanism.
“If you talk with the parents who have lost a child this way, every one of them will tell you they never thought it would happen to them,” Salzwedel said.
No child should be allowed on a tractor until they are old enough to complete a safety class, Salzwedel said.
Children shouldn’t drive a tractor until they’re 14 or 15 because they lack certain abilities that come only with maturity, she said, such as the ability to visualize and understand their surrounding environment.
Experienced drivers constantly scan their surroundings, looking for things that could become hazardous. There’s strong evidence in laboratory studies that children do this terribly, according to David Schwebel, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama who has worked with the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.
Children are not as good as adults at being able to judge movement, speed and distances, Schwebel wrote in a paper.
Small farms aren’t required to report workplace injuries for children on their parents’ property, thus many injuries probably aren’t recorded. Nationwide, about 38 kids are seriously injured on farms every day, according to the Safety Network.
Injuries in the under-10 age group have gone up in recent years, Salzwedel said.
“We have statistics to back up what we are saying. We aren’t just pulling thoughts out of the air,” she said.
Child labor regulations don’t apply to family farms when the children working on the farm are family members.
Farmers say nothing is more important than a child’s safety, but that kids can work safely if they don’t take on jobs beyond their abilities and they’ve been given some basic instructions.
“Yes, there’s some risk involved. But there’s also risk in sending your kids to day care or soccer,” said Tom Oberhaus, a Waukesha County, Wisconsin, dairy farmer who says his son was on a tractor when he was 6.
“It bothers me that, as a society, it seems like we want to ‘Bubble Wrap’ kids. At some point the Bubble Wrap has to come off, and that’s really a scary moment,” Oberhaus said.