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Children Face Dangers On Farms, But Not From Farmwork

Most farm injuries come when children are playing or visiting, not working.
Most farm injuries come when children are playing or visiting, not working.

Farms may conjure an image of a pastoral landscape, with children running and frolicking in green pastures. But farms do come with their own dangers. And there's plenty of argument on what should be done to ensure the safety of children who live or work on farms.

About 84 children die each year in accidents on farms, according to a new study, and 26,570 are injured. Because those injuries are usually severe, they come with high price tag — $1.4 billion a year, the study found.

For anyone who's spent time on a farm, it's not hard to imagine a child killed by falling off a tractor, being crushed in a combine, or suffocated in a grain silo. But the vast majority of the cases – 86 percent of the deaths and 71 percent of the injuries — were not work-related.

Many of them weren't unique to farms, either. They included falls, accidents with ATVs or other vehicles, assault, and suicide attempts, according to the study, which was published today in the journal Pediatrics.

Injuries on farms are more serious and costly than injuries in other places for both children and adults, according to Eduard Zaloshnja, the study's lead author. He's an economist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Education in Beltsville, Md., who analyzed data from the census and the federal Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey from 2001 through 2006.

"There are more hazards in agricultural settings," he told The Salt. "There is machinery around, there are animals around, so that makes a more hazardous environment for people, especially for kids."

About 1 million children live on farms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists accidents with tractors and other machinery, motor vehicles, and drowning as leading sources of fatal farm injuries to people under age 20.

These new injury numbers square with earlier estimates of the risks to children; what's new here is the dollar figure attached. It's sure to add fuel to an ongoing controversy over what kind of work children should be allowed to do on farms.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed new regulations to try to prevent injuries that would bar teenagers from driving tractors, four-wheelers, riding mowers and other machinery before age 16, as well as working around animals. (Here's Peggy Lowe's report on the proposed regs.)

The federal government is now reworking the proposal after withering criticism from farmers and educators. The critics noted that the rules would bar teenagers from using electric drills in vocational agricultural classes, and from learning many key elements of running a farm – and how to do them safely.

And the regulations wouldn't tackle the majority of the injuries and deaths, which happen on farms to children who aren't working.

Farms have been getting safer for children, says William Field, a professor at Purdue University who studies agricultural health and safety. Children who grow up on a working farm catch on quickly to the hazards of farm life, he says. More typical is a case where a child visits a farm, takes a ride on a tractor, falls off and is run over. "A lot of these cases involve a grandfather taking a grandchild for a ride in the field," he told The Salt. "Those are some of the most depressing, sad circumstances."

Still, he sees the current push for regulation of farm children's lives as a social disconnect. "There's this tremendous push to be paternal over farmers, as if somehow they're too dumb to take care of themselves. This language comes from people who have never been in agriculture, who don't live on a farm and understand the complexities of living there."

The largest dangers facing his ag students at Purdue, he says, are the same as those facing any young adults. One-third of his students this year don't know how to swim.

"I have five children," Field says. "My 16-year-old son, he drives the tractor and feeds the cows hay." He worries about that, he says, just like any farm parent would. "But I actually worry more when my son goes to a youth event in a van with 10 to 12 kids, with a driver I don't know."

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