Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farm Priorities: Safety Comes First

April 15, 2002

Some people live in one of the most dangerous work places in America - the family farm. That's right. The family farm.

Reports from the National Safety Council indicate 770 people died from farm-related injuries across the United States in 1999. Agriculture ranks second in the nation as the most dangerous occupation, next to mining. Between 175 and 300 children die in farm accidents each year, and thousands more are seriously injured.

If you live on a farm, you already know how dangerous it is. It is something you live with on a daily basis. Yet, with a few precautions, farm accidents are preventable.

Why is this such a tough issue? Economics are involved. Family values are involved. It goes to the heart of family farming.

It costs money to be safe. It takes money to upgrade equipment and to have safety features like shields on power trains installed on older farm equipment. It's money some farmers don't have. In the scramble to get by, one place farmers often cut corners is in the area of safety.

Tractors need roll-over protection. How many farmers can afford to retrofit their equipment? Tractor roll-overs are the number one cause of farm-related deaths. When safety practices are discussed, farmers often say, "Get real." Improvements are too expensive or too impractical to be used.

It takes a lot of work to supervise children on a family farm. There are lots of dangerous places to be. Children lack judgment.

Farmyards have a lot of vehicle and equipment movement. Besides parents, there are fathers, brothers, truckers and others who come into the yard. Parents need to insure that there are no unsupervised wanderings, not for a minute. For young children, an enclosed play yard provides safety. Babysitters and day care can be used when necessary. Drowning incidents accounted for one-fourth of the total deaths, and one-third of the deaths among youth less than 5 years old.

Parents shouldn’t try to work on the farm and watch children at the same time. Attention is divided and sometimes parents lose track of their kids - with tragic results.

Too much, too soon. Having the kids take responsibilities on the farm is a part of the process of raising the next generation of farmers, a goal many family farmers share.

Children need age and ability appropriate tasks. Instead they are often expected to perform adult responsibilities. Unfortunately there isn't a lot known about development norms for operating different pieces of farm equipment or for different farm tasks. Even when the norms are known, farmers tend to overestimate the abilities and judgment of their children.

Even if dads understand the safety issues, they will have a hard time saying no when his kids are pushing to help. Kids will have peer pressure from their farm friends.

Teens need to meet the same tractor safety certification rules as if farmers were hiring a teen-ager from another family. One of the statistical peaks for farm accidents is for 13-year-old boys who have physically matured but lack mental judgment in dealing with a crisis. Farm equipment generally isn't designed for use by children and consequently safety features for children are lacking. When children are operating four wheelers, they need to wear safety helmets. Some dads may not see the necessity.

One of the biggest causes of farm child deaths comes from allowing them on tractors as extra riders. Dads and grandpas may not see the danger. They grew up in an era when unsafe farming practices were commonplace and they survived just fine. To them, their idea of first aid was to carry a red handkerchief to match the color of their blood.

Farmers are in a hurry. Farmers are driven, time conscious workers who are anxious about completing their work and getting on to the next job. Being in a hurry gets in the way of using proper safety precautions. They know better but they think they can save time by cutting corners. If a son has watched his father cut corners over the years and there weren't any accidents, then his confidence and safety practices may reflect an "it can't happen to me" attitude.

Farmers respect the need for shields for their power-trains on tractors, augers and other equipment. Sometimes they get too busy to replace a shield and invite disaster sometime down the road. When headers get plugged, farmers need to shut off the equipment. Fingers, hands and feet shouldn’t get near running equipment. Even when farmers have the necessary certification as pesticide applicators, they are tempted to cut corners on the use of safety clothes, goggles or gloves.

As you can see, some of these safety issues go against the grain. To farmers, it may seem like opening the door to government regulation, added expense, more inconvenience and taking children away from work experiences on their own farm.

These are all good arguments until you read the stories, see the statistics and hear of families who have suffered a tragic loss. Hopefully it won’t take an accident or a near miss to educate hard-headed, hard-nosed farmers. Good farming means putting safety first.