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. 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 an emergency room.
Over the past four years, a team of University of Arkansas researchers has conducted a statewide 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. The results of this study were published in the February issue of the Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society.
“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.
The results of the UA study indicate that one out of every 10 adolescents working or living on a farm in Arkansas has suffered an injury severe enough to require medical attention. An additional review of state newspapers over the past 10 years revealed at least 84 fatalities and 145 injuries occurring among farm workers under the age of 21.
Sponsored by a grant from the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Jones and his team initiated the study in 1997 by convening focus groups in four different parts of Arkansas. They targeted different regions because agricultural crops and activities vary throughout the state, depending on climate and terrain.
The focus groups consisted of 47 high school students who had enrolled in agricultural education programs. These students helped the researchers identify the types of activities most common among Arkansas farm youth.
Using that information, Jones and his team designed a 15-minute survey, which they submitted to more than 700 students in agricultural education programs across the state.
Examining the 648 completed surveys, the researchers quickly identified the most common causes of injury. 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.”
The survey also revealed potentially dangerous activities in which young people routinely participate. Among these are the use of chainsaws 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 quick transportation through pastures and fields. But the instability of the vehicles and their lack of safety features make them extremely dangerous, Jones said. 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.
“The focus groups really drove this home,” Jones said. “I asked if anyone had experienced an injury from using an ATV. Well, a kid might have been injured once and thought little of it. But sitting in that room and seeing nearly every kid raise his or her hand — that painted a completely different picture. That's the kind of awareness we have to raise.”
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.
“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.”
Whether young farm workers receive information from schools or from parents, the UA survey showed that involvement in any form of training increased awareness and decreased rates of injury.
Knowing how to prevent farm injuries is particularly important in a rural state such as Arkansas. From rice to poultry, soybeans to lumber, agriculture represents the largest industry in the state. It generates more than $5 billion each year and occupies 80 percent of the state's total land area, supporting 44,000 farms.
The grant for the study was provided through the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education at the University of Texas Health Center at Tyler, using NIOSH funds. It provided $20,000 to $30,000 each year of the project. If the organization chooses to extend the grant for further research, Jones and his team plan to examine particular types of farming to determine where future awareness campaigns can make the biggest impact.
Allison Hogge is a science and research writer for the University of Arkansas.