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Family farm life can turn deadly for kids, with 11 killed in just one Pa. county over five years

On small farms, home life often overlaps with one of the most dangerous workplaces.

  • David Wenner/PennLive
A farm Lancaster County is seen in this photo taken Oct. 19, 2019.

 Ian Sterling for WITF

A farm Lancaster County is seen in this photo taken Oct. 19, 2019.

(Harrisburg) — Sure as planting in spring and harvesting in fall, children die on farms.

On small farms, home life often overlaps with one of the most dangerous workplaces. Deadly possibilities abound: A toddler getting run over by a skid loader. A 3-year-old falling out of the window of a tractor and being crushed. A loader toppling into a manure pit, pinning a 15-year-old below the surface.

Each of those and more happened in recent years in Lancaster County, according to a PennLive review of coroner records. They were among 11 child fatalities detailed in records covering 2014 to 2018.

But Lancaster County is no outlier. Children are killed at similar rates on farms across Pennsylvania and the United States.

During the past decade in Pennsylvania, a 2-year-old died after inhaling manure gas, according to the Penn State Extension, which documents and studies the deaths with the goal of prevention. A child fell into a watering trough and drowned. A child playing in a barn died after a tire and rim toppled over. A child died after getting kicked in the throat by a pony.

The extension documented six fatalities involving people 17 or younger in Pennsylvania in 2018. Half were 6 or younger. In an analysis covering 2010 to 2014, the extension logged 27 deaths involving people 19 or younger, with eight involving children 4 or younger. Nationally, the rate is about one child fatality every three days, experts say.

To better understand local farm deaths of children, PennLive reviewed coroner records of farm deaths of children under 18 in Lancaster County for 2014-2018. PennLive won a court ruling to obtain the Lancaster County records after the coroner’s office initially declined to turn over some information.

The reports detailed 11 deaths:

  • On Aug. 9, 2014, a 15-year-old boy working on an Amish farm was operating a loader to scrape manure into a pit. With the loader’s bucket raised, the boy braked, causing the loader to pitch forward into the pit, submerging and trapping the boy. The coroner listed the cause of death as asphyxiation.
  • On Feb. 13, 2015, a 9-year-old boy suffocated after 2,000 pounds of feed was accidentally dumped on him.
  • On Oct. 13, 2015, a 5-year-old boy was run over by a skid loader on an Amish farm. The coroner determined he died of multiple traumatic injuries.
  • On Oct. 23, 2015, a 3-year-old girl was riding in a tractor with her father when a window accidentally opened. The girl fell out and was run over by the tractor.
  • On Nov. 24, 2015, an 18-month-old girl died of traumatic injuries after her father ran over her with a skid loader.
  • On Jan. 20, 2016, an 11-year-old boy was found under a 1,200-pound hay bail in a barn on an Amish farm.
  • On March 9, 2016, a 3-year-old boy was hit by a skid loader and fatally crushed.
  • On Nov. 25, 2017, a 5-year-old boy was fatally run over by a manure spreader on an Amish farm.
  • On May 31, 2018, a 4-year-old Amish boy died after becoming trapped in an industrial feeder.
  • On June 18, 2018, a 3-year-old girl was found smothered under a gate that led to a cattle pen. According to the coroner’s report, she may have unlatched a chain and hook attaching the gate to the pen.
  • On Oct. 24, 2018, a 3-year-old girl died after being run over by a skid loader.

In Pennsylvania and across the United States, the number of deaths of children on farms dropped steadily for many years before stalling about two years ago. Experts don’t know what to make of it.

Maybe the most preventable deaths have been eliminated, says Dennis Murphy, a Penn State professor emeritus who has studied farm safety for 41 years. Maybe it’s because of fewer family farms, thus fewer children living among farm hazards. And it’s possible some deaths aren’t getting counted: A federal office that once provided data fell victim to budget cuts, according to Barbara Lee, director of the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

“Without accurate data we can’t say for sure,” she says.

Lee is sure of this: no child should die as a result of living on a farm.

“We believe every one of these deaths is predictable and preventable,” she says. “We don’t use the word accident because it suggests an act of God.”

But that’s not the view of everyone in the agricultural community, according to Lee. Some accept a certain number of child fatalities as inevitable, she says. Or they believe the benefits of farm life for children — spending so much time with parents and family, early exposure to serious work and responsibility — outweigh the risks. Lee calls the thinking “agricultural exceptionalism … a sense that [farmers] have a certain privilege to take kids into dangerous situations.”

Derrick Weaver, of New Holland, drives a combine to harvest corn Sept. 25, 2019, at Cairns Family Farm in Sadsbury Township, Pennsylvania.

Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads

Derrick Weaver, of New Holland, drives a combine to harvest corn Sept. 25, 2019, at Cairns Family Farm in Sadsbury Township, Pennsylvania.

She says farming is often isolated from the modern approach of holding parents accountable for children killed or seriously harmed by known hazards. As an example, Lee points to prosecutions of parents whose children die after being left in hot cars. Yet prosecutors tend not to charge parents of children killed by things like getting run over by a skid loader or suffocating in a grain mixer, according to Lee.

“Kids deserve equal protection from adults regardless of where they live,” she says. “In agriculture, society accepts a lot of these things which they would not accept with an urban counterpart.”

Lee doesn’t claim such acceptance is the norm among farmers. Rather, she believes a certain portion doesn’t take the extra steps toward eliminating hazards, just as some people know about health risks but don’t change their habits. So preventable deaths continue.

Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, agrees with Lee that every child fatality is preventable. But he rejects the notion of “agricultural exceptionalism” and any tolerance of child fatalities.

“We would totally disagree with that,” he says. “Farm safety is a top priority. When you talk about children working on farms, the vast majority are the children of the farmers. Obviously, they care about the well-being of their child and don’t want to see them hurt or killed.”

O’Neill says the Pennsylvania farm industry backs a host of things aimed at protecting children, from having children write essays about farm safety to training and accident prevention programs to obtaining grants toward mechanical safety upgrades.

He says farmers accept the responsibility to give their children age- and developmentally-appropriate chores and work, provide good training and remove all possible hazards.

“Our goal is there would be no deaths every year,” he says.

O’Neill also disputes the idea farmers receive leniency from law enforcement following child fatalities. He noted police respond to farm deaths of children and conduct the standard investigations. “It’s up to the authorities to file charges if they think there was negligence,” he says.

According to Lee, prosecutions are rare. Of the 11 child fatalities in Lancaster County from 2014 to 2018, one resulted in prosecution.

In that case, a 4-year-old fell into a feed mixer and died after his father turned it on. Investigators concluded the boy had been playing nearby and his father, before turning on the mixer, noticed he had “disappeared,” but concluded he had gone elsewhere. After about 20 minutes he realized the boy was in the mixer. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but eventually pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of endangering the welfare of children.

Ian Sterling for WITF

Fog spreads across the trees near a Lancaster County farm in this photo taken Aug. 5, 2019.

The 41-year-old was sentenced to six to 23 months confinement on his farm, but allowed to leave for things such as errands and church and a wedding in Virginia. He also was required to take parenting classes and perform eight hours of community service discussing safety with other Amish families.

In Lee’s view, such prosecutions, which receive media attention, serve the added purpose of making other farm parents aware they will be prosecuted for failing to protect children from hazards.

Lee and Murphy of the Penn State Extension don’t dismiss challenges farmers face while raising families in close proximity to their means of earning their livelihood. Lee contends many of the deaths result from lapses in supervision or failing to provide a safe play area. She and others have long promoted the idea of secure play areas on farms. Yet that also requires supervision, pointing to another problem: a shortage of child care in rural areas. It’s compounded by the fact that, on family farms, young people of babysitting age are often needed for farm work. A government effort to expand rural childcare might help greatly, she says.

Another factor, according to Murphy, involves older farm equipment lacking safety features, and reluctance of farmers, often scraping by financially, to invest in upgrades. He adds that price controls often prevent farmers from passing long costs. That can result in a lack of economic incentives to invest in safety, he says. A solution might be for Congress to devise incentives, as it does for things like environmental sustainability, he says.

One of the most important preventive measures, Murphy says, is for parents to understand mental and physical capabilities at various ages, and take it into account when considering protective measures or assigning chores or work.

This means, for example, knowing toddlers are curious but can’t comprehend danger, or that children between 5 and 9 like to take on tasks without adult supervision, or that children from 10 to 13 are potentially the most vulnerable, because they are prone to risk-taking, while easily distracted and still lacking adult coordination. Parents must also understand that maturity and ability vary, with some 10-year-olds, for example, being able to handle jobs that are outside the abilities of some 12-year-olds. Guidelines put out by the Penn State Extension warn: “Never mistake a child’s size for ability to do work.”

Discussing solutions, Lee further cites a need for a “no tolerance” approach. Everyone must speak up when seeing children exposed to farm hazards. They should talk to the parent, offer to help or, if necessary, contact authorities, just as they would for an abused puppy, she says.

Jacqueline Larma / The Associated Press

A farm is seen Wednesday May 29, 2019 outside Morgantown, Pa.

At the Pennsylvania Farm Show last week, it was easy to find farm families and parents well-versed in farm hazards and safety.

“You try to tell your kids you have to be cautious when machines are moving or augers are running,” said Lona Peters of Butler County.

She was one of five siblings raised on a Butler County dairy farm. Her cousins were there too, meaning nine kids were regularly present. Peters heard talk of children getting run over by tractors at other local farms. But the worst incident at her farm involved a brother taking a blow to the face and needing stitches after a machine jammed.

“We were pretty fortunate,” Peters said.

She attributes it to a range of things: Her parents kept children away from working machinery and tools, banned things such as riding in hay wagons or in the lap of a tractor operator, and freely talked about danger and safety.

“My mom always had a playpen in the barn,” she said. Her family had another luxury that surely helped: grandparents and older aunts living on the farm, available to watch children while parents worked.

Today, she and her husband Steve run a smaller farm, with a teenage daughter involved in the work. Steve Peters credits his daughter for being “good at it,” but adds he doesn’t allow her to operate machinery or do dangerous work alone. “I’m always with her. We work together,” he said.

Still, he points out there are dangers in all walks of life. He said he works in auto body repair and has sustained worse injury there. Lona Peters points to non-farmers who allow children to ride along on lawn tractors, with sometimes disastrous results. They believe the benefits of farm life outweigh farm hazards.

“The agricultural kids are more in tune with what really happens in life,” she said. Steve Peters compares farm hazards to guns: people who grow up around them understand the danger and the necessary precautions. And regarding farm hazards, he adds, “If you didn’t take that risk, there wouldn’t be any farmers left anymore.”

Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads

Bethany Coursen and her husbands own the Valleywide Farm in Centre County. Coursen said last year’s rain has a lasting impact on her farm.

Deb Shuey is another who grew up among five children on a dairy farm, and whose family avoided terrible mishaps. Today, her two teenage daughters are involved in raising livestock at their Lebanon County farm.

The worst incident Shuey can recall happened to her when she was 21 and got kicked by a cow, resulting in a broken leg. She attributes her safe childhood mostly to her parents preventing children from getting too close to dangerous work. “We must have had really good parents who either watched us or threatened us,” she said.

Jim and Tammy Flohr raise beef and dairy cattle on their farm in Adams County, with their teenaged daughter and son pitching in.

Asked about farm dangers for children, Jim Flohr said, “It is very concerning. I never let the kids do anything with machines when I’m not around.”

His children have been driving tractors since age 9 or 10. His 16-year-old daughter Grace, he explained, developed the judgment and ability to handle advanced tasks at an earlier age than his 13-year-old son, Caleb. That affected the jobs he gave them. Flohr believes accidents often arise when farmers “just assume” a young person can handle a task that’s routine for adults.

Flohr is another who believes the benefits of farm life outweigh the risks, although they don’t justify safety compromises. His children have been mastering practical life skills — tying a rope securely, fixing a water hose — from an early age. “I would put [Grace] up to just about any child in the world when it comes to driving — she has five years driving experience,” he said.

Jim and Tammy Flohr each hold full-time jobs away from the farm, which is also full-time. It means they occasionally face pressure to get things done, with costly consequences if they fail. However, Flohr said he refuses to put such pressure above safety.

“Can it make things harder down the road? Absolutely,” he said. “But at least we’re all together to get through it.”


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