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Growing up on the farm: some kids don't.

Pickett W; Marlenga B; Berg RL; Bryson RJ
J Agric Saf Health 2003 Aug; 9(3):183-184
The adage that "our children are our greatest resource" is one worth revisiting in the agricultural population. Epidemiological research has shown that children living and working on farms continue to be at high risk for lethal injury. Our own research suggests that very young children growing up on Canadian farms are frequently killed when they are exposed to the agricultural worksite (Canadian Agricultural Injury Surveillance Program, in press). This finding is not unique to Canada. The past decade has brought with it a number of important efforts to understand more about childhood agricultural injuries, their causes, and their consequences. Yet there is one group that continues to contribute to a silent epidemic of death and tragedy. They are not powerful, they have no political clout or ability to lobby, and they are among the most vulnerable members of farm society. They are the very young -the toddlers and preschoolers of farm families. There are few patterns of injury that are as clearly defined as those seen among young children on farms. Only three mechanisms of injury account for 80% of the deaths in this age group (Brison et al., 2002). The first cause of death is the bystander runover. A young child is brought into the workplace by the farm parent. The parent becomes engaged in farm work, loses track of the child, and the child is subsequently run over by a moving farm machine. The second cause of death is the "extra rider" runover. These typically involve children being taken on the tractor by a parent during the course of farm work. A momentary distraction occurs, or an unexpected bump in the road, and the child is off the lap or out the cab door and is run over by the rear tractor wheel. Rapid emergency response times aided by 911 notification systems are wonderful advances, but these won't make any difference here. These injuries are catastrophic and lethal. The third cause of death is drowning. These occur in ponds, streams, and irrigation dykes, where they might be expected, but also in water troughs, manure lagoons, and a diverse number of other locations on the farm property. Again, they almost all occur when the farm parent loses sight of the child during the course of farm work activities. Farm circumstances leading to these pediatric deaths are admittedly varied and complex. What is simple about them are three things: 1) very young children are being taken into the farm worksite as a matter of routine; 2) these same children cannot be given the attention they need while adults are otherwise occupied with work, and 3) unlike their adult caregivers, these children have no choice about the environment that they are taken into. The fact that these deaths happen over and over again in the same manner suggests these injuries are very preventable. The solution to these tragedies is as simple as the facts. The practice of bringing toddlers into the farm worksite during the course of agricultural work should be prohibited, full stop. A farm parent cannot both be engaged in farm work and also provide the level of supervision that toddlers require. The risks to these small children clearly outweigh any perceived benefit, even if the motivation for having them there is a good one. There are many counter-arguments to this position, some of them cultural (it's the way things have always been on farms), others surrounding the rights of parents to maintain their autonomy (we should be free to make decisions about our children without interference), others fatalistic (you could never enforce such work standards) -but to accept anything less than this very simple position is to promote the recurrence of tragedy. And make no mistake-these are the children of farmers and not "visitors" to the farm, and these boys and girls are at exceptionally high risk. Children under the age of 18 account for one-fifth of all farm fatalities, more than half of these pediatric deaths are to children age 0-6 years, and virtually all of these very young children were born and raised at the site of the tragedy (Canadian Agricultural Injury Surveillance Program, in press). Farm children are no different from other children in that they possess a basic human right to be protected from harm (United Nations, 1990). No justification or rationalization-be it economic, cultural, or tradition-{;an supersede this basic human right. Injuries to toddlers and preschoolers continue to lead to death and disability among farm children. There is clearly no injury pattern that is so deserving of being a priority, and no priority that is more challenging to our professions.
Farmers; Children; Agriculture; Agricultural-workers; Agricultural-industry; Mortality-rates; Mortality-data
Publication Date
Document Type
Funding Amount
Funding Type
Agriculture; Cooperative Agreement
Fiscal Year
Identifying No.
Cooperative-Agreement-Number-U50-CCU-514436; Cooperative-Agreement-Number-U50-OH-008107
Issue of Publication
Source Name
Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health
Performing Organization
Marshfield Medical Research & Education Foundation, Marshfield, Wisconsin
Page last reviewed: September 2, 2020
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division