Safety campaign educates on machinery danger

With a blunt and controversial message, a national farm safety group has launched an education campaign aimed at keeping children younger than 12 off tractors.

With a blunt and controversial message, a national farm safety group has launched an education campaign aimed at keeping children younger than 12 off tractors.

The "tough love" campaign from the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network comes as a child dies from injuries on a U.S. farm, on average, every 3.5 days. The leading cause of those deaths is the tractor, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of farm fatalities of children under 15, according to youth safety specialists at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis.

Many farm children regularly ride tractors, alone or with family members. Sometimes it starts with an infant riding in the lap of a parent, grandparent or older sibling engaged in farm work.

Even if the tractor doesn't overturn, there are many ways someone can be thrown from it. Sudden stops, driving over holes or a sharp turn can cause extra riders to lose their grip and footing.

The mere presence of a child can be distracting to the operator, increasing the chances of a mishap, says Marsha Salzwedel, a youth safety specialist at the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, also based in Marshfield.


The safety campaign's goal of not allowing children under 12 to be on or near tractors might be unpopular or upsetting to parents and grandparents, Salzwedel says, since riding a tractor is a childhood tradition in rural areas. But she's reviewed accident reports where a child as young as a toddler fell off a tractor operator's lap and was crushed by the tire or machinery in tow.

"It's easier to bury a tradition than a child," Salzwedel says.

Not even a tractor cab ensures safety. A 3-year-old Wisconsin boy was killed after he grabbed a cab's door handle for support when the tractor hit a bump, Salzwedel says. The boy fell out of the cab and was run over by the tractor operated by his father.

"We receive story after story of tractors hitting a bump, a kid falls against the door and it opens," Salzwedel says. "If you talk with the parents who have lost a child this way, every one of them will tell you they never thought it would happen to them."

No child should be allowed on a tractor until they are old enough to complete a safety class, Salzwedel says.

Children shouldn't drive a tractor until they're 14 or 15 because they lack certain abilities that come only with maturity, she says, such as the ability to visualize and understand their surrounding environment.

There's more to operating a tractor than meets the eye, which could explain why tractors are involved in most fatal injuries to youths on farms. Children are not as good as adults at being able to judge movement, speed and distances, Schwebel wrote in a paper.

Small farms aren't required to report workplace injuries for children on their parents' property, thus many injuries probably aren't recorded. Nationwide, about 38 kids are seriously injured on farms every day, according to the Safety Network.


Injuries in the under-10 age group have gone up in recent years, Salzwedel says.

"We have statistics to back up what we are saying. We aren't just pulling thoughts out of the air," she says.

Child labor regulations don't apply to family farms when the children working on the farm are family members.

"Your child can start operating a tractor at 7 years old, if you put them on it, and people do that," Salzwedel says.

She was raised on a farm and rode on a tractor when she was a child, Salzwedel says.

"Farms are a great place to grow up. But whenever you bring a child into a work site, you are exposing them to hazards they wouldn't be exposed to on a playground or someplace like that," she says.

"Yes, there's some risk involved. But there's also risk in sending your kids to day care or soccer," says Tom Oberhaus, a Waukesha County, Wis., dairy farmer who says his son was on a tractor when he was 6.

"It bothers me that, as a society, it seems like we want to 'Bubble Wrap' kids. At some point the Bubble Wrap has to come off, and that's really a scary moment," Oberhaus says.

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