Young farm workers in for harvest of pain

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Americans typically envision farms as places of pastoral beauty and bucolic peace. In reality, agriculture ranks as one of the most hazardous industries in the nation, second only to mining.

Especially hazardous. And these hazards can be particularly dire for the children and adolescents who work year-round on family farms. Each year, more than 5,000 of these young workers end up in the emergency room.

Over the past four years, a team of University of Arkansas researchers has conducted a study of adolescent farm workers, hoping to document the injuries these young people suffer and correlate those to the activities they perform and the risks they endure on the job.

Hard to maintain. “Farming is a difficult occupation to maintain. Farmers have had to utilize new technology as quickly as it’s available just to stay afloat.

“So agriculture has become a rapidly different activity than it used to be in terms of equipment, and safety awareness has not kept up with the changes,” explained Ches Jones, associate professor of health sciences and lead investigator on the project.

10 percent injury rate. The results of the study indicate that one out of every 10 adolescents working or living on a farm has suffered an injury severe enough to require medical attention.

An additional review of newspapers over the past 10 years revealed at least 84 fatalities and 145 injuries occurring among farm workers under 21.

Examining the 648 completed surveys, the researchers quickly identified the most common causes of injury.

Types of injuries. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported cuts. More than half (53 percent) claimed they had been injured through falling.

Approximately 49 percent had hurt themselves by lifting something too heavy. And 39 percent said they had experienced burns.

Injuries related to specific farm activities included kicks or bites from animals (46 percent), exposure to harmful pesticides (10 percent) and getting caught in machinery (8 percent).

Only 6 percent of the students reported they’d been injured when a tractor rolled over, but Jones cautions against misinterpreting the small number: “The number of injuries related to tractor rollover are low because that kind of accident usually doesn’t injure you. It kills you.”

Potentially dangerous. The survey also revealed potentially dangerous activities in which young people routinely participate.

Among these are the use of chain saws and firearms, handling or feeding large animals, loading equipment, riding on tractors and – perhaps most significantly – operating all-terrain vehicles.

Farmers and their families frequently use four-wheel and three-wheel ATVs as a quick form of transportation through pastures and fields.

But the instability of the vehicles and their lack of safety features make them extremely dangerous, Jones said.

ATV-related injuries. Past research has indicated that ATVs remain treacherous even for the most experienced riders, and ATV-related injuries are estimated to be extremely common even though many never get reported.

Jones believes that awareness is the key to preventing injury, and results from the survey seem to concur. Many students reported feeling that they had not received enough safety training on the job or in school.

Such responses clearly indicate that agricultural education programs need to include a safety curriculum. But Jones says parents can make an equally big impact.

Preach safety. “There’s a misperception among farm families. Many don’t realize how dangerous some of their children’s activities are,” he said.

“These kids really do listen to their parents. So taking a little extra time to explain safety to a child or even pausing to determine whether a child is mature enough to take on a certain responsibility can make a considerable difference.”

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