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Dairy farmers Holly and Gary Stankowski of Mosinee both grew up on farms and know first-hand the potential dangers farming poses. Holly said safety is a priority on their dairy farm where their 4-year-old daughter wants to help with farm chores. T'xer Zhon Kha/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

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As a boy, my uncle spent countless hours riding beside my grandpa on the old Farmall tractor, during both planting and harvest time on their 40-acre farm east of Fond du Lac. With one foot planted on the platform and the other on the rear axle, he held on tightly to the old seat and the flimsy fender, which provided minimal protection from the churning wheel beside it.

"We thought nothing of it back then," he told me. "When I think about those sloping fields that we worked, it was just plain dangerous, especially if the tractor stalled."

While safety features on tractors have improved by leaps and bounds over the past 60 years, tractors are still considered dangerous on the family farm. The statistics are sobering and tragic. A child is killed every three days from injuries sustained in a farm-related incident, with tractors involved in more than 40 percent of those incidences.

Chilling headlines

The headlines tell chilling tales of young children dying after being thrown from a tractor and either being crushed by a tire or run over by the implement behind it. Or the story of the 5-year-old boy who, while operating a tractor under his father's supervision, accidentally backed up, striking and killing his 13-month-old sister.

What those headlines fail to delve into is the horror of the operator witnessing the incident and the long-lasting trauma of losing a child in an incident that in many cases could have been prevented.

Yet in the face of these heartbreaking statistics, many farm children — like my uncle long ago — continue to crawl aboard tractors and other farm machinery and ride along with family members.

"Parents and grandparents may see this as a way to foster an interest in farming, but the truth is, the farm worksite is a dangerous place for infants, toddlers, children and teens," said Marsha Salzwedel, youth and ag safety specialist with the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, part of Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, Marshfield, Wis.

Dangerous occupation

In recognition of National Farm Safety and Health week, AgriSafe Network hosted a series of webinars examining health and safety in the agricultural industry. Salzwedel examined risks and benefits associated with children on the farm.

Agriculture is the nation's most dangerous occupation, and the only worksite in the U.S. where children of any age can be present.  According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), since 2009, the number of youth worker fatalities in agriculture have been higher than all the other industries combined.

Over 955,400 youth live on the 2.2 million farms dotting the rural landscape of the U.S., and almost half of them pitch in and help out with the daily work. What is frightening, is that these children and teens are nearly 50 times as likely to die working in agriculture as their counterparts working in other industries.

Sixty percent of child agricultural-related fatalities happen to children who are not working. Salzwedel says the leading cause of those deaths and injuries are tractor-related.

"The farm is their home where these kids live and play, and we need to learn how to safeguard them while that's happening," she said.

Debunking myths

Life is not easy on the farm as farmers face many stressors from the everyday economic pressure of trying to make a living to the uncertainty of passing the farm on to the next generation.

"Many of them worry about what will happen to their farms or how will they sustain their operation. And nowadays it's not a given anymore that their children are even going to take over the farm" Salzwedel said. "Some of these challenges can lead to a generation of myths."

Myth: Young children riding on tractors is necessary to get them interested in farming.

Tractors are responsible for 41 percent of the accidental death farm deaths of children under 15, yet four out of five farm children regularly ride tractors with family members.

"The newspaper clippings are full of stories of children from toddlers to teens dying in these accidents," Salzwedel said. "You see the same thing happening today and yesterday and probably — unfortunately — tomorrow as well."

Salzwedel says that it isn't possible for the person behind the wheel of the tractor to provide good supervision of a child or perform their job safely if they're splitting their attention between the two.

'Regardless what age that extra person on board is, it's a distraction from work that is dangerous," she said.

Myth: It's ok to have children ride on equipment where there is a cab

Cabs on tractors may lull farmers into a false sense of security that their children are safer tucked inside.

"The fact that you have a cab on a piece of equipment doesn't guarantee safety," Salzwedel said. "There are known cases of injuries/fatalities from  cab doors opening after hitting a bump or becoming unlatched as a young passenger inadvertently leans against it."

Salzwedel points out that older cabs may not be as protective as a newer tractors with with rollover protection built into the cab.

"Those older cabs may be enclosed but they may not have the adequate strength or bracing to function as a Rollover Protection Structure (ROPS)," Salzwedel said. "But even in a newer cab with ROPS, even if the tractor overturns, that child may not be in the ROPS protection zone meant for protect the operator,"

Myth: Babies and children can ride in tractors as long as there is an extra seat.

A farmer from south central Wisconsin commented on a tractor forum that he had spent the first decade of his life riding and sleeping on the back shelf  (inside of the cab) of his family's J.I Case 2290 and was no worse for the wear.

With the advent of instructional seats or commonly known as "buddy seats", more and more farmers feel confident in taking children along for the ride.

"My brother-in-law often takes my niece along on the tractor when my sister has to work," said Shelby Miller. "He straps the car seat into place and away they go. He calls it their one-on-one time."

Salzwedel says the smaller extra seats in tractors are designed for teens and adults and not children.

"We hear from people saying it's alright to take their children along because they are belted into the extra seat," she said. "Those seats are not designed to fit younger children nor are they built to adequately hold/restrain a car seat. Additionally, the seats are not designed to fit instructor seats."

The seats are an option for buyers for certain new tractors and can cost over $600. However, many farmers opt for after-market seats that are sometimes half the price. Some farmers may even choose to fabricate their own.

Before buying a newer tractor equipped with an extra seat, Miller says her brother-in-law had a neighbor weld a frame onto the tractor to hold a car seat for his infant daughter. 

Salzwedel pointed out that in the event that the tractor would overturn, there is not a guarantee that the seat would be protected from the ROPS.

"And this doesn't even take into account the noise, vibration, dust, chemicals and heat that the child would be exposed to," she said.

The right thing to do

While Mark Sullivan is searching for a safer tractor with a cab that would allow him to bring his son along with him for some minor tractor chores, he still isn't convinced it's the right thing to do.

"My grandfather can't understand why I worry so much about my son being around and on tractors. He took my dad with him everywhere when he was my son's age," he said. "He was lucky that nothing ever happened to him. I'm not sure I'm willing to take that risk."

Just because riding side by side on a tractor is looked upon by some as an unspoken tradition on the farm, safety officials says it's time to lay that tradition to rest.

Over 10 years ago, a national coalition of agricultural safety and youth-serving organizations launched a campaign with a tough-love message: "It's easier to bury a tradition than a child."

"We're trying to preserve the best part of agricultural tradition, but at the same time change social norms, so that people view unsafe practices for what they are — unacceptable," said Barbara Lee, Director of the National Children's Center for Rural Health and Safety. 

Everyone wants their child to have a great experience growing up on a farm, and no one wants their child to die on the farm.

"You trust that having grown up on the farm that your kids know what's safe and what's unsafe, but we have to remember that they're still children, not little adults," said Julie Schneider. "Making sure that our kids are safe is our responsibility."

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