Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // Forum // 4F3

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Averting the Tragedy: Children's Farm Accidents

A general perception exists among farmers and Extension personnel that safety, while important, is somewhat less of a concern than other issues.

David A. Bird
County Extension Agent for Agriculture
Grayson, Kentucky
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Each year in rural America, a tragedy continues to unfold- the accidental death of our farm children. Rural children are twice as likely to die in accidents as their urban counterparts. Prevention efforts continue to be hampered by a lack of funding, manpower, and perceived need.1

In the '80s, agriculture became the leading industry for accidents, with 49 per 100,000 workers. Agriculture has also witnessed the greatest proportional increase in fatalities of any occupation, even though the number of farm workers has decreased. Agriculture has high accident rates for several reasons, most notably, working under adverse conditions, such as mud, snow, temperature extremes. In addition, spouses, children, and relatives may work on the farm often without regard for their competency, training, and safety. As a result, agriculture also has the highest incidence of death of children. Finally, agriculture receives less in federal safety dollars per capita than mining, which is second in fatalities.2

Research suggests farm accidents aren't random occurrences nor randomly distributed. Younger operators' families have more accidents. Farm families having higher debt-to-asset ratios, who are also younger, are at greatest risk.3

Nearly half of deaths and injuries come from farm machinery. Researchers have found a discrepancy in what parents believe about children using farm machinery and what they actually practice on the farm. In one study:

  • 79% of parents believed it was acceptable to let children ride a tractor, but 90% were actually allowing their 7-9 year old children to ride.
  • 13% believed 7-9 year olds should operate tractors, yet 29% of 7-9 year olds operated tractors.
  • 16% thought children 7-9 shouldn't be within 10 feet of rotating machinery, but 27% were allowing the behavior.4

Farm accidents claim about 200-300 children's lives and cause thousands of injuries annually.5 Some writers claim this figure isn't accurate because drownings, firearms, and truck accidents on farms may not be readily cited as agricultural. Research is needed to address the question of farm child death rates, their causes, and prevention.

It's easy to say money will solve the problem. Money is needed for adequate, affordable rural child care, to hire adult farm workers, for education, for more university safety personnel, and for better safety equipment. But, only throwing money at this problem won't solve it.

A general perception exists among farmers and Extension personnel that safety, while important, is somewhat less of a concern than other issues. Extension must do more than a few radio spots during farm safety week. Several state Extension Services are taking a proactive stance promoting farm safety, with a joint initiative on farm safety between the Colleges of Agriculture and Medicine at the University of Kentucky. But we need a mandate to address rural safety at the county, state, and national levels. We need to change our own perceptions and practices, as Extension professionals, at home, and on the job. We also need the research and materials to assess the problem, identify the solutions, and implement them. Our children are waiting.


1. R. A. Aherin and C. M. Todd, "Accident Risk Taking Behavior and Injury Experience of Farm Youth" (St. Joseph, Michigan: American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1989).

2. J. M. Geller and others, "Nonfatal Farm Injuries in North Dakota: A Sociological Analysis," The Journal of Rural Health, LVIII (No. 2, 1987), 197 and A. P. Jurich and C. S. Russell, "Family Therapy with Rural Families in a Time of Farm Crisis," Family Relations, XXXVI (No. 4, 1987), 364-67.

3. D. H. Cordes and D. Foster, "Health Hazards of Farming," American Family Physician, XXXVIII (October 1988), 233-43.

4. Aherin and Todd, "Accident Risk Taking Behavior."

5. Cordes and Foster, "Health Hazards of Farming."