Monday, December 29, 2014

The silence around dead kids on farms

As part of my research on farm worker rights, I read a fair bit about farm workers being killed. One of the more moving stories of this past year came from Saskatchewan where one family (over the course of several years) lost three of their six children (ages 16, 14 and 10) to injuries sustained while driving farm machinery (a tractor and a ATV).

Obviously these are tragedies for the family.

From a research perspective, these deaths were pretty predictable. Rollovers, rider rundown, and blind rundowns together comprise the most common way kids die on the farm. This reflects that farm kids often operate machinery:
Cliff Arnal says all his children were part of the farm from a young age — Sean swung from a Jolly Jumper attached to the roof of a combine as a baby. He started driving a tractor at 11. Blake was running a combine by the time he was eight, the same age Lyndon was when he first got behind the wheel of a semi-trailer.
The inherent dangers of operating multi-ton machinery are compounded by the physical and intellectual immaturity of children. We recognize this in almost every other setting by radically limiting the situations in which children drive.

One of the more striking aspects of the news coverage is the absence of any criticism of the parents for letting minors operate dangerous farm equipment. Before you wig out about “kicking parents when they are down” (which is likely why the reporter didn’t go there), know that I’m quite sympathetic to their loss and I spent a lot of time thinking about it before raising this point.

In almost any other situation, a parent allowing a child to undertake activities that are likely to cause physical harm would likely be in breach of provincial child welfare laws and subject to approbation by their community. For this reason, I don’t let my 11-year-old run the chainsaw or clean the shotgun or drive the Subaru. 

Yet there is no mention of anyone looking askance at this behaviour and the folks I spoke with were all super-leery of the whole line of discussion. Not surprisingly, the various reporters repeat the parent’s justification without any further inquiry
Anne Arnal says keeping her kids from farm work wasn't an option, even after Blake's death. Sean and Lyndon were energetic boys and she didn't want them growing up a bubble, playing video games in the basement. They wouldn't have been the people they were supposed to be, she says.
I suppose one could honestly believe that not driving a vehicle unsupervised until one is old enough to have a driver’s license is “growing up in a bubble”. Yet, based on what we consider normal behaviour in any other circumstances, I’m inclined to disagree.

What she’s really saying here is that she chose to let her kids drive dangerous farm machinery. Why she did that is an interesting question. Social norms? Economic pressure? Bad judgment?

Underlying the parent’s assertion is a (I think) broadly held view that farming is a risky business. The corollary (that no one wants to say aloud) is that a certain degree of injury and death (even among farm kids) is inevitable and widely accepted.

There is likely some truth to this—farming is very dangerous and people die.

Yet, that people will die doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t try to prevent those deaths via behavioral change. And, we likely ought to concentrate such efforts among the most vulnerable populations, like children.

The stock response to questions about farm safety for kids is usually, “we can/should/do educate the children.” This is, of course, not really working that well, likely because kids shouldn’t be (and generally aren’t) the ones responsible for deciding what kids can and can’t do on a farm.

And parents don’t seem to be doing a great job of regulating children’s behaviour (for lots of complex reasons—such as production pressures and lack of child care). Anywhere but on a farm, we’d expect the state to step in and regulate the situation. 

While skeptics of regulation abound, the evidence that regulation works is overwhelming: requiring seatbelts, child safety seats and bike helmets and prohibiting impaired driving (off the top of my head) are all regulatory efforts associated with reductions in injury rates. This issue is not whether regulation works, but whether there is any political will to implement it.

Like most provinces, Saskatchewan has laws governing health and safety on farms. But they are not applicable to the children of farmers. This means that pretty much anything goes on in terms of child labour on Saskatchewan farms. In Alberta, the government doesn’t even bother with the pretense of regulating child labour and worker safety on farms.

The upshot of this state of affairs is that more kids are going to die, needlessly, on farms. And that is the real tragedy here.

-- Bob Barnetson

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