Updated: Sep 11
Like most things in life, growing up on the farm is a balance between adventure and appreciation for the hard work ethic, while also navigating the risks of injury. As farm injuries in the adult population have decreased, the same has not proven true for rural youth in Canada. Experts in injury prevention continue to ask why safety culture on the farm around children seems to be lagging, as well as what tactics might improve it.
Dr. Don Voaklander, professor and director with the University of Alberta’s Injury Prevention Centre, says engineering changes and newer machines have gradually decreased injury in 18-to-55-year-olds. However, “We haven’t seen a similar effect with children on farms,” he says. “In fact, it’s remained relatively the same in Canada. So, we still see approximately a quarter of deaths on Alberta farms are those under 18 years”.
Just what conditions persist that mean injuries and fatalities are not falling off for farm children? Research suggests it comes down to the unique nature of the farm in terms of youth and safety, in addition to parental attitudes around the risk versus reward scale of having kids involved in the day-to-day work life on the farm.
A study published in 2018 with the Saskatchewan Farm Injury Cohort Team, “Towards a deeper understanding of parenting on farms: A qualitative study,”* shared some key findings around farm safety and youth, noting the complex nature of the subject for both parents and safety professionals.
“Farms are unique settings that typically integrate both a hazardous worksite and a family home,” the study says. “Parental decisions made about children on farms must therefore involve considerations of occupational safety and health as well as more general aspects of health in the developing child”.
Dr. Voaklander says this study reveals a major determinant shaping farm safety culture – the opinions and attitudes of farm families and how they manage risks with their children. “The major takeaway message was that the benefits of being exposed to risks on farms for children outweigh the risks themselves,” he says. “Parents generally look at how they want their children to benefit and how they want them to fit into the farm culture”.
We’re all familiar with the associated risks for youth on the farm, but it never hurts to recap. Participating parents listed inadequate supervision, task-related dangers, extreme weather and exposure to farm hazards, including grain, equipment, machinery, livestock and chemicals as notable threats.
However, it was revealed that decision making around involving their children resembles a balance scale. One side holds the potential risks, while the other side supports any potential benefits, including childcare, labour, family time, opportunity, experience, character-building, skills and cultural values acquisition, sense of accomplishment and positive health impacts.
“Farmers see benefits in the experiences and opportunities kids gain,” Dr. Voaklander agrees. “They are also an important part of the labour structure on the farm and meeting the needs of the family”.
Of course, not all parents are equal in how risk and benefits tip their scales. The process varies farm-to-farm. “These are just some of the considerations that fall into anything we all do,” says Dr. Voaklander. “There’s a plus and minus going on in our heads at all times”.
That continuous weighing in is influenced by many factors, including the agricultural ‘way of life,’ the parents’ knowledge and experience, each child’s characteristics and safety norms as a whole. “Wherever these fall, a farm can be left more or less safe for children,” says Dr. Voaklander.
So, how can we ensure parents and children continue to realize all the wonderful benefits to growing up involved on the farm, while decreasing the associated dangers?
First, it’s not easy and requires constant awareness. “Culturally, with farm children, it’s very difficult to change this,” says Dr. Voaklander. “We’ve been talking and messaging about farm safety for kids for a lot of years, but at the end of the day, it’s a check and balance. To change that farm culture has been, and will continue to be, extremely difficult”.
The qualitative study backs this. “Not all parents have the same orientation towards safety or risk assessment, and they may have divergent attitudes towards the importance, effectiveness, and desirability of prevention,” researchers write. “This can be seen in parents’ willingness to make substantial investment in farm safety, either in terms of financial or time investment.”
For example, financial investment might include installing power lines underground, where time investment could be a commitment to involve children in morning safety meetings. Findings were hopeful in that, “The fact that parents are knowledgeable about the hazards on the farm may be indicative of the educational focus of intervention strategies that are often utilized in injury prevention initiatives.”
Understanding all of this, we can cater prevention strategies, particularly education and safety messaging, to make them more digestible for farm parents, families, and communities as a whole.
Ag for Life is doing just that with their community-based education programming that is inclusive and memorable for all ages.
Safety Escape Mail - Building upon the popular ‘locked room’ experience, we are challenging students to discover safety in a new way, bringing the escape room to the classroom. Students will receive safety clues that they must solve to discover the solution to the locked room puzzle. The program includes individual student packs that they receive via snail mail (yes, that in itself is a treat for many students), an interactive presentation facilitated by Ag for Life’s Safety Specialists, online resources and tip sheets and a teacher guide to facilitate the experience. Students will be immersed in the rural and farm safety message while having fun!
Safety on the Farm for Youth - This online course is interactive, engaging and suitable for those 12 years of age and older. An extension of the First Aid and Safety on the Farm training program launched by St. John’s Ambulance and Ag for Life in 2017, the course helps families who live and work on farms prepare and respond to emergencies.
Ag for Life’s Rural Safety Unit - (Due to COVID restrictions and to ensure the safety of students, teachers and communities, this program is on hold until further notice) On-the-road and ready to travel to schools, communities, fairs, festivals and other events this is fun education, encouragement and promotion around rural and farm safety for all. Programming is aimed at youth and their families who live, work, play or visit on the farm. Seven interactive stations give participants the opportunity to learn and engage with digital, tactile and mechanical interactive displays.
* Elliot V, Cammer A, Pickett W, Marlenga B, Lawson J, Dosman J, et al. (2018) Towards a deeper understanding of parenting on farms: A qualitative study. PLoS ONE 13(6): e0198796. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0198796