Is Your Child Protected From Injury on the Farm?

  • Shutske, John M.

Just an accident?

  • Two-year-old Ashley rides on her father's lap in the tractor cab as dad mows his field. Distracted by a butterfly at the window, she slips off his lap and is jostled against the door, which swings open. She falls out and is crushed by the tractor's rear wheel before her father has time to react. Her death is reported as another "tragic farm accident."
  • Seven-year-old Jason is cleaning out stalls in the family dairy barn alone when a massive cow steps sideways, pinning the boy against the stall wall and breaking his ribs. Was it "just an accident"?
  • Derek, a high school senior, is helping his father by unloading grain on a cold evening. He leans back off the tractor and falls, hands-first, on to the unshielded, spinning PTO shaft. First one arm, then the other is ripped loose as he grabs at the shaft.

Too many kids are hurt

Five or six times a year, a child like Ashley is killed in Minnesota while playing or working on the family farm. No one even knows how many farm children like Derek or Jason* are hurt or maimed each year. These farm "accidents" happen so often that it's difficult to keep track of them.

Farm accidents involving children may seem unpredictable and random. It may seem that they can't be prevented. Some people even believe they are simply "the price of farming."

But no parent should have to sacrifice a beloved child's health just to preserve a way of life. And no farm child should have to die in "just an accident." In fact, farm accidents to children are not random. They are very predictable. And almost all of them could be prevented, according to child and farm safety experts.

Farm injuries happen when a child is doing something that is beyond his or her mental, physical or emotional ability.

A farm child's desire to do "grown-up" work may exceed his development and ability.

As they grow, all children pass through a series of developmental stages that take them from toddler to teenager. The physical changes are obvious, as a child grows taller and stronger. But along with physical changes, come changes in mental and emotional development that are sometimes harder to recognize.

For example, take a two-year-old, a toddler. Although she may be barely able to talk, a toddler is an active, engaged learner who is driven to explore her world as directly as she can. If she sees someone hide a colorful bottle in a cabinet, she will do her best to get at it, open the bottle, and taste its contents; even if she has been warned not to and even if the bottle contains poison. Preschool children can't be expected to understand cause and effect, because they're not developmentally ready to do so.

If parents of very young children understand these characteristics, they can take the right precautions, such as using "child-proof" fasteners on cabinets containing cleaning fluids or farm chemicals. Toddlers need physical barriers, such as fences, gates and locks, to keep them away from dangerous areas.

Teenagers, on the other hand, are mentally equipped to understand that risky behavior often has unpleasant consequences. But they are often driven to ignore common sense to satisfy the emotional need for experimentation that is typical of that age. A 16-year old who drives his father's pickup too fast down a county road probably knows the speed limit. He's speeding because he wants to, not because he doesn't know any better or because his legs aren't strong enough to press the brake pedal. e may also be speeding for "thrills," because there isn't enough entertainment or recreation for his age group.

Parents of teenagers must acknowledge this need for excitement and experimentation, supplying safe challenges for their maturing teens. Sports, teen activities and trips into the city can all satisfy these needs.

It's up to parents and responsible adults to keep farm kids safe.

Age appropriate activities can reduce the risk of accidents

By understanding the stages of a child's growth and development and by providing careful supervision and training that's right for each stage, parents and other adults can protect farm kids. Sound obvious? It may be. But take the three "accidents" described earlier. In each case, the child acted in a way that was consistent with his or her developmental ability, and was hurt or killed because of it.

Next is a chart that describes typical developmental stages, risks that farm kids at each stage may take, and appropriate protective measures. How well does this chart describe the youngest farmers in your household or community? Does it suggest ways that Ashley, Jason and Derek could have been protected from injury and death? Are there ways you can better protect the farm children you care about?

Characteristics Typical Risks Protective Measures

Unable to understand cause and effect
Illogical, "magic" thinking
Fascinated by movement or moving parts
May love to climb
Drinking or eating poison
Falling off farm equipment or pickup truck
Drowning in pond or manure pit
Wandering into highway
Careful supervision at home or in childcare
Physical barriers such as locks & fences
Safe distractions
Prohibiting riding on farm machinery
Early School Age (5-9)

Inconsistent use of logic
Wishes to appear competent
Wants adult approval
Not aware of realistic dangers√∑more fearful of kidnapping or war than of much more likely farm accident
Livestock kicks or crushing
Entanglement in augers or other moving machinery
Falling out of tractor or pickup
Consistent rules
Discussion of safe behavior
Assignment of simple farm chores, with careful supervision
Bike safety training and use of bike helmet
Older School Age (10-13)

Greater physical and mental skills
Physical development may outstrip mental or emotional maturity
Wants social and peer acceptance
Wishes to practice new skills without constant adult supervision
Operating machinery designed for adults.
Being struck by a car while riding bicycle
Falling from hay loft or ladder
Consistent rules, with consequences for infractions and rewards for safe behavior
Bike safety classes, use of bike helmet
Deliberate, planned increases in chores and responsibilities
Specific education on farm hazard avoidance
Adolescent (13-16)

Desire to experiment
Strong need for peer acceptance
Resistance to adult authority
Machinery rollover or roadway accident
Hearing loss from exposure to loud machinery
Head or spine injury from motorcycle or ATV accident
Education from peers who have experienced injury or illness themselves
Consistent rules, with predictable consequences for infractions and rewards for safe behavior
Motorcycle and ATV safety education and use of helmets
Involvement in farm safety projects through 4-H, FFA and other groups
Young Adult (16-18)

Increasing sense of adult responsibility and competence
Desire to be supportive, take on adult share of farm work
Need to take risks
Feeling of "immortality"
Same as adult risks: respiratory illness, tractor or machinery rollover or entanglement, hearing loss, muscle or bone injuries
Additional risk from experimentation with alcohol or drugs
Clear and consistent rules regarding drugs and alcohol
Rewards for acceptance of adult responsibilities
Opportunity to be role model, teaching younger children about farm safety

If you'd like to know more about child farm safety, contact your local extension educator, or State Extension Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist.

A related publication is University of Minnesota Extension Service Item , FO-5791 Farm Safety Day Camps

Information on the World Wide Web: Farm Safety & Health Information Clearinghouse at

* the names of these children are fictitious; their stories are not.

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