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Tractor safety worth focusing attention

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Greg Peck
May 6, 2014

When I worked on my uncle's dairy farm, where he and my mom and their siblings were raised, I often rode on a tractor driven by my uncle or a hired hand. I would sit on a fender or stand on the trailer hitch. Often, we'd hit a bump in the pavement or on a lumpy field road. Had I not been hanging on tight, I wouldn't be around to write this today.

When I was researching my book, a longtime Marshall resident was one of the oldest people I interviewed. He was raised on and once worked a farm, but he and his wife spent their twilight years living near our home in the village. I'd known this grandfatherly, good-natured man for years, and he even helped another uncle build a basement bedroom for me.

In 1998, I attended his funeral. That's when I learned that not all of his days were joyous. When he was working a farm, a daughter begged and begged to ride on the tractor with him. He resisted, until one day when she had a friend visiting. So he let them ride as he towed a manure spreader. Sure enough, his daughter fell off and was killed when the spreader's wheel hit her. This 96-year-old man was laid to rest beside his 6-year-old daughter.

I, too, had close calls on my uncle's farm. That's why stories about farm safety always catch my attention. In Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rick Barrett reported about a “blunt and controversial message,” as a national farm safety group in Marshfield has launched an education campaign aimed at keeping young children off tractors.

The Childhood Agricultural Safety Network has started this “tough love” campaign knowing a child dies from injuries on a U.S. farm, on average, every 3.5 days. The leading cause of deaths is the tractor, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of farm fatalities of children younger than 15, according to specialists at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield.

Barrett writes that many farm children regularly ride tractors, alone or with family members. They sometimes ride as infants in the laps of parents, grandparents or older siblings. Even if the tractor doesn't overturn, someone can be thrown from it in many ways.

A tractor cab can't even assure safety. A 3-year-old Wisconsin boy died after he grabbed a cab's door handle for support when the tractor hit a bump. The boy tumbled from the cab and was run over by the tractor his dad was driving.

Marsha Salzwedel, a youth safety specialist at the Marshfield-based National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, says the campaign's goal is not allowing kids younger than 12 to be on or near tractors. This might rile parents and grandparents because children riding tractors is a tradition on family farms and younger kids help work such farms. Yet she's read of too many tragedies.

Children should not be allowed on tractors until they are old enough to complete a safety class, Salzwedel believes. Children shouldn't drive tractors until they're 14 or 15 because they lack abilities that come only with maturity, she said, such as knowing how to visualize and understand their surroundings.

“Farms are a great place to grow up,” Salzwedel told Barrett. “But whenever you bring a child into a work site, you are exposing them to hazards they wouldn't be exposed to on a playground or some place like that.”

So what do you think? Is age 12 too restrictive for such a safety campaign?

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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