By Connor Lynch
ELIZABETHTOWN-KITLEY — Sitting in the tractor cab, under a blazing sun, wearing bright green sunglasses, beef farmer Eleanor Renaud described how her three-year-old grandson Jack once fell asleep across her lap. Sprawled out, he left room just for her arms to grab the wheel. He loves the tractor and farm equipment in general. His favourite book is the Ag Buyer magazine: Getting a copy in the mail is just like Christmas for him, she said. He knows the name of every piece of equipment and he wants all of it.
But just last month, Jack scared the life out of her. He went missing when she was with him in the barn. It was a hot day and all the doors to the barn were open. The barn itself is very close to the roadway. She grew more frantic as she searched and called for him. He wasn’t responding. “He thought it was funny: I had a meltdown.” He was playing hide-and-seek, but had forgotten to mention that before disappearing.
Children helping out and riding along is seen by many farmers as one of the great perks of farm life. Moose Creek dairy farmer Tom Speck posted a video last month on Twitter, showing his seven-year-old son Ethan driving a skid steer to wrap hay bales. The Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, however, recommends that children under 16 not drive skid steers.
Ethan first started using the skid steer last year, although only a little, said Speck. “We keep a pretty tight eye on him.”
While helping out on the farm can be an enriching experience, it can also have devastatingly unexpected consequences. Farms are dangerous places to work and, no matter how safe a farm is, as long as farmers and children live where they work, there will be injuries and fatalities.
In May, a Western Ontario farmer was convicted of criminal negligence causing the death of his four-year-old son Steven. Steven had fallen out of the bucket of the skid steer that his father, Emanuel Bauman, was driving. In a police interview before his initial arrest, Bauman admitted: “It was way too risky. (Steven) should not have been in the bucket.”
A farmer convicted in the death of his own son is probably the first case of its kind in Canada. But it’s far from the first case of a child dying on the farm.
Everyone knows someone who lost a child in an on-farm accident. If concern for safety wasn’t a priority, we’d know a lot more. In a 10-year period from 2003 to 2012, 84 children died in accidents on the farm in Canada. That number has been declining for years.
Renaud, who farms at Elizabethtown-Kitley between Smiths Falls and Brockville, did things as a kid she didn’t allow her kids, or grandkids to do. Her farm is large and spread out. Driving a tractor to the most distant field takes about 30 minutes on the road. As a kid, her father would tell her: “Sit up tall in the seat and pull your hat down, so they can’t see how little you are.” And, at 10 years old, she would drive that tractor for 30 minutes down the road to the field. “I don’t think I’d even think about putting (the grandkids) on the road.”
There are practical obstacles to keeping your kids away from farm work. Finding babysitters in rural areas isn’t easy, and daycare isn’t a realistic option for most. Said Renaud: “You’re not going to drive your kids into town, even if there is a daycare. Your day is half over by the time you’re in and back.”
Speck says farms are safer in some ways than they were, and more dangerous in others. Equipment has gotten safer (roll bars on tractors come to mind), but farms have gotten busier. In the farmyard, it’s “not just one tractor coming in. There’s four of them moving stuff around.”
He grew up when the biggest tractors were 55 horsepower. “These kids are growing up around 200-, 300-horsepower tractors, learning on equipment that is a lot bigger and more complicated. Little stuff like this builds confidence.”
Gordon Smith, a longtime farm safety advocate who was nominated by Dundas Farm Safety for the Dundas Ag Hall of Fame earlier this year, said attitudes can be slow to change. Smith said his organization pushed hard for farmers to set up safe play areas for kids, away from where the machines are stored or used. Otherwise, kids can run through the yard to be closer to a parent. Smith recalled not too long ago a farmer backing over his three-year-old. The farmer had seen the child in front of the machine but when he started backing up, the kid had already run behind.
Nine children have died in accidents on or around the farm in Ontario in the last five years. Last year, two children were killed in farm accidents. Four were killed in 2017.
Fatalities often involve equipment. Smith said farm safety organizations recommend not letting kids even ride along in the cab of a machine. His organization got after tractor manufacturers to change cab designs. Before the advent of buddy seats (often complete with a seatbelt), kids riding along would have to stand, and often held the door for balance. If the latch opened, it was all too easy to fall out. Now, tractor cab doors open inward.
One of the difficulties is estimating how capable your children are. Dr. Don Voaklander with the Injury Prevention Centre at Alberta, said that people aren’t as good at it as they think they are or their kids are. That makes them overly confident in thinking they can avoid an accident.
Voaklander grew up on a farm. He recalled riding along bumpy country roads in a no-cab tractor with his father. “I was leaning up against a fender, my dad bumping along, doing 20 miles an hour on a gravel road. I could’ve easily fallen off. I’m lucky it never happened.”
Farms are safer on a per-capita basis than they’ve ever been, he said. But they remain a very dangerous work environment, even for adults.
Voaklander went so far as to say: “Death on the family farm will disappear with the death of the family farm. The whole lifestyle is embedded into the culture.”
Not surprisingly, agriculture is Canada’s most dangerous industry. In 2017, 1.86 out of every 100 farm workers missed work because they’d either gotten sick or injured on the job. The next most dangerous job was in forestry, at 1.74 per every 100.
Alberta made an attempt to regulate farms in 2015, passing a controversial law that would have essentially required farms to act more like traditional corporations: Employees had to have Workplace Safety Insurance Board coverage and farms had to follow occupational health and safety rules. United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney promised to repeal the bill if he was elected. His party won in a landslide earlier this year.
In other parts of the world, laws have been different for a long time, even if change out on the concessions is slow to happen. The Farm Safety Partnership, a UK organization, launched a campaign last month to reduce the number of fatalities and accidents involving children on UK farms. According to official statistics, 11 children under 13 have been killed on UK farms in incidents in the last decade, seven of whom were killed by farm vehicles. This despite the fact that it’s been illegal for children to be in a tractor since 1958.
But attitudes are hard to shake. The chairman of the safety partnership, Stuart Roberts, told Farmers Weekly that he himself had let his children ride along in the tractor cab. “It was illegal, it was unsafe and it was stupid, but I did it.”