Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Deaths of farm children are mostly preventable

The death of three young farm kids in Alberta last week is (rightly) being reported as a tragedy. The reports are bit unclear but it appears that the girls (13, 11 and 11) were sitting on a truck while canola seed was being loaded, somehow fell into the truck bed, and were buried, eventually dying of asphyxiation.

One of the more vexing aspects of the media coverage are “man-on-the-street” comments along the lines of “it’s a farm, what are ya gonna do?” Although this narrative has been less pronounced in the coverage of these deaths than in other tragedies, it is still visible in the coverage.  For example:
Fred Bott said he was invited to the Bott farm often while growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. 
He said many might question why the children weren't more closely monitored on the farm. 
"Anytime we went to visit, you were always out playing out in the haystacks, playing in the barn loft, playing in the grain. That's what farm kids do."
There certainly truth in this statement: farm kids routinely come into contact with hazards and this contact is widely accepted as a part of farm life. Yet, at the same time, most of these contacts—and the injuries they sometimes cause—are not inevitable.

Crudely speaking, injuries and fatalities are caused by an individual being in proximity to an uncontrolled hazard. If you control the hazard (e.g., by eliminating it or otherwise limiting contact with the hazard), you prevent the injury or fatality. This the basic “logic” of hazard control in occupational health and safety.

Hazard elimination is tricky on farms. Of the roughly 100 farm fatalities each year in Canada, about 70% are machinery-related (roll-overs, run-downs, caught in machine, collisions, pinned by machinery). Drowning, contact with animals and falls account for most of the rest. About 2% of fatalities are caused by asphyxiation by grain or soil.

Many farm hazards are inherent in the work (thus cannot be eliminated) while others would be extremely costly to mitigate. It is, however, possible to reduce the risk of death appreciably. Consider roll overs (the biggest risk to farmers, nationally). Driver training can reduce the risk of tractor roll overs. And roll bars can decrease the likelihood and severity of injury from a roll over.

Now think about kids on farms. There were 61 fatalities involving minors on Alberta farms between 1997 and 2013. The causes broadly mirror national data on child farm deaths:
Machine runovers: 41.9%
Drownings: 15.2%
Machine rollovers: 11.1%
Animal-related: 6.5%
Crushed under an object: 5.1% 
A small percentage of these deaths are likely unpreventable. For example, anyone who gets on a horse can get thrown and a small subset of those thrown will die as a result. But most of these deaths are preventable by excluding children from the area containing the hazard, either with physical barriers or via firmly enforced rules.

Excluding the children from the area around grain or seed loading operations, for example, likely would have saved the three girls who died this week. Yes, children can break rules, but most likely won’t. And it is up to parents to enforce these rules.

What this analysis suggests is that allowing farm kids to be exposed to hazards is a choice (i.e., academics would call it a cultural practice). As a choice, this practice is amenable to change. The question is show to effect such a cultural change, given how adults tend to diminish injuries and near misses to children by framing these events as educational (“that’ll learn ya”).

There is some logic to this “natural consequences” approach to parenting. We certainly do all learn from experience. Yet allow kids to learn from first-hand experience in the face of risks with potentially fatal consequences is not responsible parenting. While educating children about the risks on the farm is certainly one possibility, it is important to remember that it is adults who determine the dangers children face on a farm.

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. I was really, really hoping this incident wouldn't be another horrific event used as a teaching moment. I am a student of your courses (many of them) and am just finishing up IDRL 308. While a large part of me knows the need for safety measures and agrees for the most part, I can't help but get mad at myself (and at my professors as well) for sitting back in our comfy desks, eating the grains (and use of the oils) produced by these hard working families and judging loftily about their inability to keep their families safe and the oh-so-obvious-to-us mistakes they have made. This is far more complicated than can possibly be analyzed by us bureaucrats reading reports and studying safely in our chairs. I think it's part of my anthro/sociology courses shining through that realizes an entire culture cannot be changed just because we judge from the outside about how wrong they are, nor can we realistically regulate that which we do not contribute to or truly understand. Could this have been prevented? Oh very likely. Will this change family farms for the future? Yes, I believe it will encourage others to truly watch where people (not just children) are in respect to the hazards around them. Can all hazards be regulated away? No.

    1. If we can't have an honest discussion about the contributing factors to farm deaths (some practical, some cultural, some uncontrollable), we're basically accepting that they will continue.

      One (and only one) of the challenges here has been an unwillingness in rural communities to inquire as to the causes of farm incidents. The causes are likely manifold and we might start with the lack of child care options (meaning kids are around what is also a workplace, sometimes without supervision).

      I apologize for any offence the post has caused (I spent quite a lot of time rewriting to soften the edged). That said, there needs to be a real discussion about these issues.

    2. Oh there was no offence taken, just a thought about all of our discussions regarding this incident seem to come off as more disciplinarian than true concern for the control of possible future hazards. Please don't take my response as angry, I'm just a person that enjoys the devil's advocate position.

      In the last assignment for IDRL 308 we are asked to report on the Babine fires, and part of my paper discusses safety culture. Most authors of journals I've researched agree that safety culture is a difficult concept to establish because our nature, in discussing the reform of the safety environment, is to place blame (workers, organizations, government, etc), and make it seem more like disciplinary action rather than a where-do-we-go-from-here attitude. No farm family is going to sit down with officials to discuss events for fear of retribution legally ("am I going to be charged with neglect of my child"), nor will they accept official decrees to change knowing they possibly have no basis in the realities of farm life & its deeply ingrained culture.
      Discussion is fantastic, and obviously necessary, but how do we begin, and who is in on this discussion and where will it lead us? Discussion without the ability for action is just useless and quite honestly useless babble. I do hope for change, but I prefer it not come at the exploitation of a family's tragedy.