Decades of effort does little to reduce the rate of fatal injuries for farm kids

“There is a pervasive culture of risk in farming, from weather conditions to crop prices to injury. It’s considered part of the job, and a lesson to be learned at a young age.”

Recent research  from the  Injury Prevention Centre  (IPC) shows the rate of fatal farm injuries to Canadian children did not decrease over 23 years despite being identified as a public health priority.

“The rate at which Canadian children die of fatal farm injuries is higher than the rate of childhood death from cancer or suicide,” said Don Voaklander, professor in the School of Public Health and director of IPC. “It is too high.”

“Over this 23-year time frame, there were many efforts and initiatives implemented to improve child safety, but they haven’t been effective,” explained Voaklander. “While the total number of deaths has dropped, it’s mostly due to the declining family farm, while the rate of fatalities has remained stable.” 

Using records from the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting (CAIR) registry, Voaklander and his associates analyzed national data related to childhood farm injury fatalities from 1990 to 2012. During that period, the rate of farm children 0-19 years of age who died of fatal injuries on farm remained flat at about four per 100,000 each year.

To observe trends over time, CAIR data was divided into two time periods: 1990-2001 and 2002-2012. “Machinery remained the greatest cause of fatal farm injuries to children in both time periods,” explained Voaklander. “But there was a change in the types of machinery and the means of injury by the machinery, reflecting changing farm practises.” 

For working children, tractors were responsible for 50 per cent of fatal injuries in 1990-2001 and 46 percent in 2002-2012. Similarly, for children who were not working at the time of their fatal injury, tractors were involved in 44 per cent of the time in the historic period, and 33 per cent of the time in the more recent period. 

According to Voaklander, safety mechanisms such as roll bars are incorporated into the design of newer machinery used in the more recent period, compared to the historic period. However, there was also a change in the types of machinery farm children typically are exposed to and are how the cause of injury.

Between the two periods fatal injury by all-terrain or off-road vehicles increased, especially amongst children who were not working at the time they sustained their injury. This reflects their popularity for recreational use. 

Overall, the data shows the general characteristics of death by age, sex, farm residency, involvement of machinery and whether the child was working or not remained similar. This is despite increased education and safety campaigns aimed at farming families. 

Voaklander said he is not surprised that the risk remains virtually the same when it comes to child farm fatalities.  “There is a pervasive culture of risk in farming, from weather to crop prices to injury,” he said. “It’s considered part of the job, and a lesson to be learned at a young age.”

Evidence suggests educational approaches to farm injury prevention in such a culture are ineffective. “Many programs are geared towards children when it’s the adults who are the ones responsible for creating and sustaining this risky environment,” Voaklander said. 

Canadian family farms have been largely excluded from occupational health and safety regulations, as they’ve been perceived to be bureaucratic and financial burdens to farmers, but Voaklander is an advocate for legislated protection for farm children as a solution. He cited a case in Ontario of the courts finding a father responsible for his child’s fatal farm injury as a necessary shift in societal attitude that may help in changing the culture of risk on farms. 

“There is safety legislation to protect children in other industrial and workplace settings. Farm kids deserve the same protection.”


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