Working on a farm is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States today. A combination of mechanical hazards from equipment, to toxic pesticides and by products, a farmhand is rarely far from harm. From privately owned farms, to large corporate facilities, farm accidents claim the lives of 22 of every 100,000 farmers in the country. Even police officers, who regularly are placed into dangerous situations, statistically are only half as likely to die on the job compared to a farmer.
However, unlike many other dangerous jobs in America, children make up a sizable portion of the work force. Federal and state government has tried to find ways to limit the danger of farm life for children, but have met with little success. A complex weave of tradition and severe financial hardship has made many farmers reluctant to limit their children from certain jobs on the farm.
According to research, child farming accidents claim a life every three days.
There is no centralized database that records all child-related agriculture accidents. Advocate groups, such as the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, must rely on the ‘best available data’.
That data is unfortunately limited. The federal government stopped surveying farmers about these incidents in 2015. Some researchers often rely on collecting news clippings to try to get a full accounting of just how many children are hurt or killed on a farm each year.
As these incidents get more media attention, farmers are finding themselves under increased criticism. Some critics have pointed out the very clear disparity in how agricultural jobs are regulated compared to other dangerous occupations. For example, on a construction site, safety is tightly regulated and safety equipment is mandatory. Children wouldn’t be allowed on most active construction sites, even under heavy supervision.
However, the Department of Labor has stated children of any age can work any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents. Most family farms have resisted any regulation of child labor, and the reasons for it are complex.
Increased regulations and oversight are considered non-starters by many farmers
Health and safety advocates around the country feel that the time has come to bring farms under a regulatory umbrella. Already, the laws in place state that certain jobs on a farm cannot be handled by children below a certain age. The loophole, as many see it, is where families can direct their children to perform potentially dangerous labor without legal consequence.
Even after horrific child farming accidents within their communities, farmers are reluctant to keep their kids off dangerous equipment. Many farms have passed from generation to generation. Children have woken early to perform chores alongside their parents, eventually inheriting the farm themselves. From the farmer’s perspective, regulation would put an increased burden on the farm, one that many would not survive.
The solution of regulations does not always consider the financial challenges smaller farms may face. Hiring outside labor might ensure safer operation of heavy equipment, but farmers contest that the costs may exceed their revenue.
The prices of farm produce cannot guarantee against financial burdens. The explosive growth of corporate owned and operated farms is difficult to match. The increased competition, coupled with market instability, equals intense pressure on smaller farms to pay the bills. To save on labor costs, these farms rely heavily on the whole family to do their part.
Critics say this is profit from child labor and endangerment; farmers say that this is simply part of the life. And certainly, children are not the only group at risk. Experienced farmers fall victim to equipment-related accidents on a regular basis.
Safer farm equipment is a solution, but it isn’t always affordable
Tractor accidents continue to be one of the leading killers on the farm. Many of these fatal accidents involve the tractor rolling over, crushing the unprotected driver. Newer tractors include roll-over protection, such as full enclosures that keep the driver in their seat and safe from tipping over.
Tragically, roll-over protection cannot prevent all other accidents with these machines. Many farm tractors have been on a farm for decades, and do not have all the safety equipment of modern tractors. While some tractors have add-on kits manufactured for them to improve their safety, many others do not.
The iconic farm tractor is not the only source of injury or death on the farm. Skid steers, ATVs, manure spreaders, even the immobile grain silo presents danger to a farmer. The sheer number of dangers on any farm have many farmers questioning if regulations will do any good, much less prevent accidental deaths by an appreciable amount. Some farmers say that the danger is part of ‘the life’. While accidents do happen, farmers say these are tragedies to mourn, not something to shame and punish a family for.
Farm equipment manufacturers, and technology researchers have combined efforts to make safer solutions for the average farm. But if a farm cannot afford hiring older workers, it may not be able to afford the latest equipment. Many smaller farms will likely continue to operate as is, with equipment that may have safety flaws some families cannot afford to address.
While public attention grows around farm labor, political realities appear to block regulatory efforts
For now, there does not appear to be a clear plan about how to enforce any new regulations. Economic realities may prevent many farms from supporting any push for new standards.
Politics also has a role to play. The Obama administration faced heavy opposition to new rules that would control child labor on the farm. To retain the support of the farmer, many politicians shy away from trying to bring down the regulatory hammer. President Trump won the support of many rural farmers by speaking directly to their concerns: excess regulation causing financial stress to operations that in some cases are barely staying afloat.
There is a real fear that harsher labor requirements could potentially be the final straw for thousands of smaller farms. For family farms, children are more than a source of labor. A child represents the future of a farm. For those families, learning how to do the work at an early age is simply ‘how it has always been’.
For now, and the foreseeable future, children on a family farm will be able to operate tractors without legal ramifications. Child farming accidents will continue to be ‘part of the life’.