Deaths Down on the Farm

But injuries up for kids; hard times to blame, say some

FRIDAY, Oct. 12, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Farm families may be shrinking in number, but the injury rate to their children continues to go up.

About 100 people younger than 20 die each year on U.S. farms, and some 22,000 are injured severely enough to require an emergency room visit, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. About 2 million children live or work on farms or visit them each year, the report says.

"Fewer people are at risk because of the decrease in farm families, but yet there are still a lot of injuries," says Dr. Susan Pollack, a Kentucky pediatrician and occupational medicine specialist and member of the academy committee that produced the report. "There's such a large toll, and so many of them could have been prevented."

"A little bit of thinking, a little bit of prevention could really make a big difference," Pollack says.

Some experts say the death rate -- which dropped 39 percent in the 10-year span analyzed in the report -- has improved because more kids are surviving their injuries.

"This has a little bit to do with [better] emergency medical services for children," Pollack says. "More of them are reaching the ER alive, [and] pre-hospital care is better."

Still, injuries continue to mount. Considering the shrinking farm population, the rate for nonfatal injuries to kids on farms has climbed almost 11 percent, the report says.

"Some say this is because of economic conditions, hard times," says Barbara Lee, director of the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis. "People don't have babysitters for their [younger] kids, and older kids are helping out with their parents to save the farm."

Child care, in fact, is one area that needs attention, according to the report. But Pollack says that wouldn't necessarily require much money.

"When tobacco planting season comes [in Kentucky, for instance], multiple families come together to set tobacco, and they leave all the kids at the end of the field," she says. "It wouldn't take all that much change to have one person designated as the child-care watcher."

Farm families should think about "pooling resources not just for planting and harvesting but for child care," she says.

Other recommended ways to make it safer for kids on farms, according to the report, include:

  • Having fenced-in play areas
  • Mandating seat belts on tractors and other pieces of farm equipment as well as devices designed to protect riders should the vehicle roll over
  • Prohibiting kids younger than 16 from operating any farm vehicles and requiring a valid driver's license as well as tractor safety certification of all 16- to 18-year-old drivers
  • Limiting young kids' access to large animals
  • Improving storage procedures for chemicals used in farming
  • Banning extra riders on tractors and mowers.

"Prohibiting extra riders alone would probably save half the kids we lose in this state," Pollack says of Kentucky.

The highest number of deaths stems from tractors, Lee says, but most minor injuries are related to farm animals. These tend to be crush injuries, Pollack adds.

"A big cow that pins you against the barn wall can do some major damage," she says.

One area of debate, Lee says, relates to regulations that, if tightened, would restrict kids' work.

"Should there be greater restrictions on children operating tractors on public roads?" she asks. "Should they be driving a tractor pulling a manure spreader on a public road if they're only 14 years old?"

State governments generally require a special tractor certification for anyone wanting to drive a tractor on a road, but a 14-year-old can get that certification, Lee says. And, she adds, they don't need it to cross a road or highway to get from one field or farm road to another.

The suggestion in the report that all tractors be equipped with rollover protective bars certainly would help reduce the risk for all riders, Pollack says. But giving farmers an incentive to install them, she says, ought to be considered as well.

"Personally, I don't see why there shouldn't be a rebate, just like you get for having a smoke detector [in your house] or seat belts that work by themselves in your car," she says. "You ought to be eligible for some sort of safety rebate if you have rollover protection."

What To Do

To find out what jobs on a farm are considered safe and acceptable for a child, whether the child lives there or is just visiting, check out the North American Guidelines for Children's Agricultural Tasks at the Web site of the National Children's Center for Rural Agricultural Health and Safety.

To read the full report on agricultural injuries to young people, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics online.

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Pollack, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine, University of Kentucky School of Medicine and Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, Lexington, Ky.; Barbara C. Lee, R.N., Ph.D., director, National Farm Medicine Center and National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, Marshfield, Wis.
Consumer News