Visiting a farm or petting zoo can be a great experience for your family. It lets kids interact with animals, and they can see how foods are grown and processed.
But before you load up the family for a rural adventure, it's important to learn a bit about farm safety. Animals, heavy machinery, and pesticides are just a few of the hazards for kids on farms. And if you live on a farm, it's important to protect kids from everyday dangers by taking safety precautions.
Why Farm Safety Is Important
The age groups at greatest risk for injury on farms are kids around ages 3 to 4 years old and teens 13 to 14 years old. Fortunately, most injuries can be prevented by taking precautions and educating kids about the potential dangers.
If you're visiting a farm or live on one, being aware of potential hazards will help kids steer clear of hazards.
Visiting the animals on a farm is a great opportunity to teach kids to be respectful of farm life. Teach your kids not to run, scream, speak loudly, or otherwise startle an animal. Because a mother protecting her young can become defensive, kids shouldn't go near baby animals.
Helmets are an important safety feature when riding or working with horses. Another safety concern on a farm is that animals may transmit infections to humans. To prevent this, have your kids wash their hands with warm water and soap after touching any animals. If you live on a farm, teach your kids to wash their hands after handling or cleaning up after pets and farm animals and to avoid kissing or sharing food with the animals.
The heavy machinery that helps a farm run also can pose a serious safety risk. The most common machinery injuries include being crushed or losing limbs in large equipment like combines, threshers, hay processors, and riding mowers. Tractors are the most frequent and most deadly cause of machinery injuries.
Types of injuries that can be caused by farm machinery include:
Pinching injuries: This occurs when two pieces of machinery move together with at least one piece moving in a circle. Clothing, fingers, hands, or other body parts could be caught near a rotating part and severed.
Wrapping injuries: If there's a rotating shaft, clothing or hair could be wrapped around the shaft, trapping a child and pulling him or her toward the machinery.
Cutting or shearing injuries: Machinery that contains blades or hard edges, such as those found on harvesting equipment, can cut material or skin or even sever limbs.
Thrown-object injuries: Machinery such as mowers can throw out stones or other debris while in operation and cause injuries.
Crushing injuries: Garage doors, tractors, or raised equipment may fall, roll, or be lowered, causing serious injury or death to someone trapped or crushed beneath.
Follow these basic rules around machinery to help keep kids safe:
During a visit to a farm, never allow your child to wander from the tour group or away from you. Don't allow kids to play in areas where machinery is in use or being stored.
Kids, whether they are visitors or residents, should not play with or ride on equipment, even with adult supervision.
If there's one seat on the equipment, there should only be one rider — an adult. You should never allow extra riders.
Do not allow riders in the back of pickup trucks.
All equipment should be parked and locked with keys removed when not in use.
Before starting machinery, all operators should know where kids are located to avoid accidents — small children could be easily hidden by large wheels or blind spots. Because adults who are operating machinery may be unable to see or hear kids, kids should never be allowed to play near machinery.
Keep hand tools, especially those with sharp or hot parts, out of reach.
Keep equipment in good repair and safety features up to date. For example, tractors should have lights, seat belts, and roll-over protection structures (ROPs). When it comes to machinery maintenance, a shield and guard to cover spinning parts or blades should be kept in place. Read and follow the directions in equipment instruction manuals and conduct routine inspections of equipment so you'll be aware of potential safety hazards that may cause an accident.
Vehicles such as motorized dirt bikes, mopeds, and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are often used as transportation on farms. They can cause death and serious injuries (often head, spinal, and abdominal injuries), especially among teens who use them recklessly and don't wear helmets. Children under the age of 16 should not operate 2-, 3-, and 4-wheeled vehicles.
In general, kids under the age of 16 or those who are not licensed to drive a motor vehicle should not be allowed to operate any farm vehicles, including tractors or ATVs. It's also wise for licensed teens to take a tractor and farm vehicle safety course before operating farm vehicles.
Finally, teach older kids how to turn off machinery — they might save someone's life in an emergency. If your child is cared for by a family member or other caregiver, make sure that person knows how to turn off machinery in case your child is in danger.
Locks and childproof containers are necessary when storing pesticides and chemicals. Because poisons can be ingested, inhaled, or can get into eyes or be absorbed through skin, kids should never be allowed near them.
You can take another safety step by labeling the containers of poisonous materials with warning signs. Never keep poisonous materials in unmarked bottles — that's a dangerous practice for kids and adults, who may get the poisons confused with other substances.
Electrical boxes should be kept locked and away from all water sources to prevent curious kids from being shocked or electrocuted.
Water Safety and Manure
When kids explore or play near any body of water, there's always the risk of drowning. Ponds, feeding troughs, or other containers of water may pose a hazard to kids. It's important to watch kids as closely on a farm as you would at a swimming pool or the beach.
Supervise kids at all times and teach them to avoid water if you're not around to watch them. In addition, if you live on a farm, fencing ponds, manure pits, and troughs may help prevent drownings.
Manure pits (sometimes also called lagoons) are also a special danger on farms. Many farms that produce dairy, beef, and pork products have complicated systems to handle animal waste. When animal manure decomposes, it gives off gases such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane — which can be dangerous to adults and kids alike. These gases may be colorless and odorless but are extremely poisonous. Some are even flammable.
To prevent poisonings, kids should never enter a manure pit or silo (gases can also build up in silos), even if the pit or silo is empty. If you live on a farm, you should work to reduce the volume of manure in liquid collection pits to lower gas buildup. Also ensure proper ventilation in silos and manure pits.
Grain and Silos
Grain, which is usually stored in a silo, is often an underestimated danger. Children can become trapped and suffocate under the shifting surface of stored grain or in flowing grain that is being sucked out of the silo.
To prevent injuries from grain entrapment, teach kids to never enter a grain storage container or silo and do not allow them to ride in grain wagons. In addition, if someone is trapped in a silo, teach kids never to enter to help — instead, they should call an adult or dial 911 or the local emergency number immediately.
Children and teens may be enticed by ladders on silos or haylofts. In general, you should keep all ladders, including portable ladders around grain wagons and silos, out of the reach of kids. Ladders can also be fitted with special barriers made to prevent kids from climbing them.
Also teach your kids that the hayloft is no place to play — a fall from the loft can cause serious and deadly injuries.
Kids helping out around the farm could be at risk for hearing loss. Using noisy machinery, lawn mowers, and power tools could cause tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, and prolonged exposure can lead to permanent hearing loss.
To help prevent hearing loss kids should wear ear protection such as earmuffs and earplugs when around noisy equipment or animals. Also, discourage them from listening to headphones or portable stereos while working on the farm. Listening to music may prevent kids from hearing cries of warning or calls for help.
Supervision is the most important way to protect kids. Children lack the judgment to understand the dangers that may surround them on a farm. It's important to teach kids farm safety from an early age, and make sure that they recognize warning signs and decals on machinery and poisons.
To minimize kids' attraction to areas where dangerous farm work is being performed, carve out a safe play area with ropes or fences away from all hazards. Make this space appealing to kids with age-appropriate play items, such as swings, a sandbox, or a playhouse.
Teach kids about unsafe areas on your farm. Take a walk around the farm and ask your kids to point out areas for play. If a child indicates an area that's dangerous, explain why it's not safe and how kids could get hurt. Point out areas that are off-limits and teach kids to heed "Danger!" signs posted in hazardous areas.
Helping Out on the Farm
Farms are often family-run, and each member of the family may have a job to do to contribute to the farm's success. However, you should understand what chores are appropriate for a child's age and development and what the risks are. Farm injuries are more likely when kids perform a task beyond their mental, physical, or emotional ability.
How do you know whether a child is old enough to help out with a certain chore? In general, toddlers' tasks should be confined to simple household chores, such as folding towels or helping pick up toys. Older kids may be able to do simple farm chores that don't involve machinery or dangerous substances, if an adult carefully supervises them.
Older kids and teens may be ready to become involved in groups such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America where they can learn about safety while increasing their responsibilities around the farm.
For kids who are old enough and mature enough to help out, make sure that:
They wear the proper clothing (for example, loose-fitting clothing can get caught in moving machinery) and protective gear like safety goggles, earplugs, work boots, hat, gloves, and sunscreen.
An adult trains the child or teen in the proper way to complete the chore or use machinery.
If using machinery, the child should understand how to shut off the machine, how it functions, and the hazards it may present. In addition, remember that kids may tire more readily than an adult, so encourage regular rest breaks.
In general, kids younger than 16 and those who are not licensed to drive a motor vehicle should not be allowed to operate any farm vehicles, including tractors or ATVs. It's also wise for licensed teens to take a tractor and farm vehicle safety course before operating farm vehicles.
Because the risk for injury is so great, be consistent with consequences if a child doesn't follow safety rules. Also help protect kids from injury by being safety conscious yourself — if they see you following your own safety rules, they'll be more likely to understand and respond to your concerns about safety.
Have a Safety Plan
Seconds count in any accident, so a safety plan is vital to minimizing injury and getting an injured person help. If your child is missing, check all dangerous areas first. Make sure kids know how and when to call 911, other local emergency numbers, and the poison control center (1-800-222-1222) if someone is injured, and post those numbers near each phone in the house and around the farm.
Family members should always be aware of each other's whereabouts and when they are due to return to prevent delays in getting help in the event of an emergency. Another important precaution — have everyone in the family learn CPR and first aid.