Harvest and field work isn’t quite finished, which means hundreds of young children will be extra riders in tractors and other farm machinery. Fortunately, the majority will not be involved in an accident, but other dangers may not be immediately obvious.

Marsha Salzwedel, project scientist and agricultural youth safety specialist at the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety (part of the National Farm Medicine Center), said the concept of “no problems” with children in farm equipment isn’t true. There are issues, and some, especially with babies in tractors, don’t manifest until years later. “We aren’t just battling an unsafe practice that some people may not even realize is unsafe,” she said. “We’re also battling a family tradition.”

When working with farmer groups on farm safety, Salzwedel asks, “Does anyone know anyone who has been injured or killed in a farm accident?” She’s often met with silence until one person speaks, then another, then another. “All of a sudden, the stories start to roll, and soon, everybody knows at least one person and many know more who have been involved in a farm accident,” she said. “But it isn’t until people start thinking about it that they realize it isn’t uncommon and it does happen to people like us.”

Although there’s always potential for a child falling out a door or window, Salzwedel said numerous hazards can harm children. In the case of some hazards, the consequences may not be visible right away.

Many parents put children in the instructor’s seat or in a car seat in the tractor’s cab. “It’s never safe to put a child’s car seat on an instructor’s seat,” said Salzwedel. “Those seats are not designed to hold a car seat and won’t restrain it the way it’s supposed to. Its placement in the cab is not the same as in the back seat of a car.”

Noise is one of several potentially harmful issues. “We do know infants tend to be very sensitive to noise, more so than other children and adults,” said Salzwedel. “But we don’t know exactly what those limitations are and what to recommend. We know because of increased sensitivity, the recommendations should probably be more restrictive than for older children and adults.”

Some parents place appropriately-sized hearing protection on children who are riding in equipment, but most ear protection for young people is designed for babies three months and older and don’t work well for newborns or babies who are small for their age. Babies and young children tend to move around a lot and use their hands to grab anything on their heads too, so it’s unlikely that ear protection and other PPE such as dust masks will stay in place.

“Even with a cab on the tractor, the cab may not be designed to dampen noise the way it should,” said Salzwedel. “Not all cabs cut noise equally. The other thing to keep in mind is the possibility of a cracked window or a seal leak that compromises the ability of a cab to dampen noise. Addressing the noise issue is not as simple as putting on ear protection – it just doesn’t work well.”

Although research is ongoing, there’s good evidence that vibration affects children. “We know infants are likely to be more sensitive to vibration than older children or adults, but we don’t know the limitations – there hasn’t been a lot of research in that area,” said Salzwedel.

A child restrained in a seat in a tractor doesn’t protect against normal vibration because a tractor doesn’t have the same shocks as a vehicle and is not being driven on a paved road. “We do know jarring and bumpy movements experienced due to uneven ground will more severely affect an infant’s neck, back and brain than an older child or an adult,” said Salzwedel. “It isn’t to the point of shaken baby syndrome but could be in a very rough area.”

Another potential danger for children in farm machinery is air quality. It’s obvious that air quality may be compromised in a tractor without a cab, but there’s potential for dust and other chemical exposure in an enclosed cab. Babies can be exposed to pesticides or fertilizer, especially in older tractors, but any tractor presents risk. “Not all cabs will protect people from the environment equally,” said Salzwedel. “The newer tractors tend to be better, but an open or cracked window or broken seal can affect air quality. We know dust and chemicals are extremely hazardous to children and babies.”

The possibility of having to stop and open the cab door presents more potential for harm. “What if you come to a stop, open the door and chemicals and dust enter the cab?” asked Salzwedel. “Even when the cab is good, it isn’t always protective because there will be circumstances with exposures. It often happens when you don’t think about it.”

Another potentially harmful problem arises if the operator has to handle chemicals at some point and cannot adequately clean up before handling the child.

If taking children to the field is so dangerous, what’s the solution? Salzwedel and her team realize childcare is an issue for many families, especially in rural areas. “We also know childcare is often very expensive and often doesn’t match the hours the parents need it,” she said. “We have some recommended strategies.”

Childcare is the safest option. Perhaps a family member, a teen in the family, grandparents or a neighbor can watch children. Another option is rotating care with several families working together to keep children at each other’s homes.

Other alternatives account for known challenges in rural areas. For daytime care with adult supervision, Salzwedel and her team advocate for building and maintaining safe, fenced-in play areas. “Play equipment should be designed to keep them interested and engaged,” she said. “When Mom or Dad pulls into the driveway on a tractor, the child is in the fenced-in area and can’t run out into the driveway.”

Some parents understand the hazards and don’t take kids in tractors, but too many still do it no matter what kind of education is provided. Salzwedel’s goal is to help people understand the hazards and offer feasible options.

For solving childcare issues, she recommended a resource called “A Roadmap for Delivering Child Care in Agricultural Communities,” which provides thorough information about establishing daycare centers, how to conduct a needs assessment and accessing community grants and obtaining sponsors. It’s available at cultivatesafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/A-Roadmap-for-Delivering-Child-Care-in-Agricultural-Communities_Web.pdf.

by Sally Colby