Creating a new culture of farm safety

In the 1860s, agricultural families made up nearly half the population of the United States. Today, just 2 percent of people live on farms in the U.S., and less than 1 percent works on them full time. Yet the tradition of the farm as a family business, where everyone pitches in, is as strong as it was generations ago. That means kids work and play in a hazardous environment where they can be seriously injured and sometimes die.

"If you look at the history of agriculture, you see that it has always been common for kids to work on the farm because that's how families made a living. Today, we know that farming is a dangerous occupation full of high-risk activities, especially for children, but we are still doing things the way our grandparents did — we're stuck in that culture," explains Kim Lombard, injury prevention coordinator at Mayo Clinic's campus in Rochester, Minnesota.

A few years ago, the Department of Labor proposed regulations to prevent children younger than 18 from operating heavy equipment, climbing tall ladders and applying toxic chemicals. Those proposals went nowhere and were eventually scrapped. But Lombard says developmental norms, not just age, should determine which farm activities are safe for kids.

Is the task appropriate?

In deciding the appropriateness of a task, she suggests that parents and medical providers consider the following:

Physical ability

Can a child reach the brakes on an ATV? Is she strong enough to control it safely? Does protective gear interfere with a child's ability to safely operate the vehicle?

Perceptual development

Many children drive tractors at 8 or 9 years of age, yet most can't judge speed and distance until at least age 10, and even then, they don't understand the limits of their physical abilities.

Critical thinking skills

These don't fully develop until early adulthood and decision-making doesn't mature until the mid-20s.

Information processing speed

"Children aren't fast decision-makers. It takes them a while to catch up, so that limits certain things that require quick thinking, such as avoiding an attacking bull or getting help for someone who's injured," Lombard says.

Social pressure

"Parents and peers have a huge influence on how children and teens conduct themselves," Lombard points out. "If parents model safe behavior, kids are more likely to imitate it."

Lombard suggests parents show children the right way to do a task and then supervise them while they do it. As kids become older and more skilled, they can be left alone for varying amounts of time, depending on the activity.

"Training, close supervision and modeling safe behavior are all important," she points out. "But if kids are uncomfortable, scared or worried, that's a key sign they're not ready."

Childproofing the farm

Accidents can happen even when kids aren't driving tractors or herding cows. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2012 found that 87 percent of farm injuries weren't work-related.

"Many injuries happen when children are playing or even visiting a farm, so there have to be safety precautions around the property — locks on barns, livestock pens and chemical storage areas; fencing around ponds; designated play areas; and constant checks to make sure machinery is turned off," Lombard says. "Families should have safety kits on hand; learn first-aid skills, with at least one family member certified in CPR; and have an emergency plan that everyone understands. In case of an accident, a fast response is critical."

What providers can do

By the time providers see an injured child, it's too late for any of these measures. But providers can play a key role by helping educate parents, says Terri A. Elsbernd, R.N., pediatric trauma coordinator at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus, in Rochester, Minnesota.

"We would be negligent if we didn't address safety issues," she says. "Many of the farm kids we see have significant injuries, and it is absolutely our responsibility to say something. We need to be more proactive, too. Go to the county fair and talk about farm injuries or have a safety fair and address the topic. Because of ingrained traditions, what we have to say may not be overwhelmingly embraced. We had that experience when we discussed adult and pediatric farm safety at Farmfest last year. Farm culture in America is a great, rich tradition, and we don't want to take that away from anyone. But there is a better, safer way to do things. And if we can get that message across to just one farm family, it will be worth it."

For more information

Zaloshnja E, et al. Incidence and cost of injury among youth in agricultural settings, United States, 2001-2006. Pediatrics. 2012;129:728.