Children under 18 have accounted for 11pc of farm fatalities in the last 10 years, but there are many ways to lower the risks
Farms are generally regarded as both a great place to grow up and yet one of the most dangerous places to be a child.
Being present on the farm is seen as essential in instilling a passion, love, and respect for the land and yet the farm with all its hustle and bustle and machinery and livestock can present so many dangers.
So how can parents navigate the joys and perils of rearing children on the farm?
Martin Heydon, Minister of State with responsibility for farm safety, says parents must not shy away from their responsibilities to be aware of the dangers.
“There is no state intervention that could match the trauma left behind after a farm accident,” he said. “I think for anyone or any family that has lost a child, or anyone on a farm, there is a life sentence of grief that no fine or penalty could match. It can knock on any of our doors.”
The Irish farm is by far the most dangerous workplace in all of Ireland, the minister said, and children under the age of 18 have accounted for 11pc of all farm fatalities in the last 10 years.
“There’s no other workplace or industry that comes anywhere close to farming. Children don’t die on building sites, they don’t die in offices, they don’t die in shops or other workplaces.
“I think a lot of it is, and this isn’t an excuse, but, the farm can be an integral part of the home so we face an extra challenge. I was raised on my own farm in Kildare and I want my own kids to be raised on the farm.
“When you look at the vast majority of fatalities, they’re to do with farm vehicles and machines and small changes can be made to avoid this, such as not operating machinery when children are in the yard.”
He said everyone in the household has a responsibility to identify the hazards on the farm and make sure they’re addressed, as “so often these life-changing instances have a nature that was preventable”.
“We all know that we have near misses on farms and statistically, the more near misses there are in an industry, the higher the rate of fatal instances will be, the higher the rate of life-changing injuries will be.
“So, we can drive down the near misses, we can drive down the hazards by identifying them better.
“I think that’s how we will bring about a cultural change and make our farms much safer places while also getting that balance right and allowing children to learn all the great things there are to learn growing up on a farm.
“I know what it is to live on a farm and to be raised on a farm and all the attractions there are there and I really think that at the back of it all, we all know our own farm better than anyone and what we have to do is train ourselves to identify what is actually dangerous, because too often we miss that.
Meanwhile Alma Jordan, founder of AgriKids, says using the farm to educate children on farm safety is key. “I wouldn’t be one to say ‘keep the children off the farm all of the time’ because there are so many ways they can learn from the farm — the science, the maths, the animal care, the food origin, all those messages are so, so important.
“However, I do say that with a certain caveat — we have to always remember that the farm our children are living on and being reared upon is also the most dangerous workplace.”
When it comes to bringing children onto the farm, she says, it’s the adult’s responsibility to ensure the children know they’re only ever supposed to be there with an adult, and not at a busy time.
“When you do bring them onto the farm, use it as an opportunity to show them where the dangers are. Don’t just say ‘no, you can’t’, without actually explaining why.
“Explain to kids why they aren’t allowed in certain places. Explain to them exactly what the different signs on the farm mean. Explain to them exactly what the dangers are and where they are. Always explain why they aren’t allowed in certain places.”
Storing farm chemicals in food tubs and mineral bottles is a big mistake that many people make, says Alma, as children have, in the past, mistaken them as being consumable.
Exposing children to “age-appropriate jobs” is absolutely vital, she says, as it allows them to experience farm life while learning about how to stay safe.
“Jobs that are within their ability and within their competency level — I always say things like stacking buckets, sweeping the yard and helping with bottle feeding baby animals are all good tasks for children who are over five. Another great one is taking down tag numbers from lambs or calves in pens.
“Then as they get older, helping with lambing, checking animal health while with an adult become more appropriate but that comes with age. Having a five-year-old in a pen with a freshly lambed ewe will never be appropriate, it’s just common sense.”
Sometimes saying ‘no’ is the best thing a parent can do, says Alma.
“Kids all sometimes want a run on a tractor or to go down to see the animals but if you’re busy, if it’s not the appropriate time, say no.
“They might get a bit huffy and a bit cross, but they’ll get over it, and there will be another time.”
While childcare can be difficult, especially on a farm where both parents are working, she says, “the last resort ever should be that the child is on the tractor beside you for childcare reasons. The farm is not the place to look after children.”
Alma launched AgriKids in 2015 after two children died in separate farm accidents within days of each other. “I feared the same thing happening to us, we weren’t any different to them, we weren’t any safer. I knew I had to educate myself so that I could then help educate children and their families.”
Alma now has her own books, booklets, games and apps and she runs workshops in schools and other community groups. “It’s all about doing better, the next generation of farmers are depending on us.”
Setting a good example when it comes to farm safety is key for Fiona Murphy, who runs a sheep and suckler farm in Newport, Co Mayo, along with her husband Michael and their two children, Cillian (9) and Aoife (5).
“We got our guidance from Agrikids and Teagasc — Jesse’s Farm Safety Programme.
“We started as we mean to go on. Our eldest child, Cillian, is nine and, like a lot of boys brought up on a farm, he has always been obsessed with tractors and machinery. We wanted to teach him about farm safety from the get-go.
“Children learn from their parents, and they are like sponges. They take in everything so how we approach farm safety is key in them learning about it.
“We teach them to be farm safe and stay farm safe. We let the kids get involved in the farm activities that are safe for them.
“We have a sheep and suckler farm so, for example, in springtime the kids love bottle-feeding the pet lambs, Cillian has nine now. He’s at the age that he can write down the tag numbers of the lambs and do those little jobs too, which he loves.
“Aoife collects the eggs and helps throw down the bedding for the hens. Kids don’t have to be involved in the dangerous work to experience farm life. There are always age-appropriate jobs on the farm.
“Our kids are farm safety conscious even at this age from starting at the very beginning. They’re really interested in it. The more we taught them about farm safety, we noticed Cillian had started to set up his farm toys from a farm safety perspective — he’d put a sign by the toy cow to show that she could be aggressive, and he’d explain to the farmer why he/she has to be careful.
“It’s our responsibility to keep our children safe on the farm and to have our farm a safe place for anyone else who comes on to it. It’s the farmer’s job to keep everyone safe on the farm.”
Fiona says children who don’t come from farming backgrounds should also be taught about farm safety.
“Even if a child doesn’t grow up on a farm, they might go on holidays to a farm setting or visit relatives who live on a farm and it’s so important that they know the dangers.
“There’s quite a lot of organisations out there when it comes to farm safety and kids and we have to reach out to them as parents and get the information and learn how to approach farm safety in a way that will teach our children the dangers of the farm while also keeping them interested in the farm.”
Peter Hynes and his wife, Paula, operate a 180-cow grass-based dairy herd in Co Cork, alongside their three daughters — Chloe, Georgie, and Becky.
“Our 15-year-old can milk the whole herd of cows, she always has somebody with her but she knows the whole run of the milking parlour and how to do everything. She’s 6ft tall, so not a small 15-year-old.
“She does tractor work but no work where she has to get out of the tractor. She teds silage which is a job where you have to drive slowly to do it effectively, so it’s a good learning task for her. She’s very accurate at what she does and she’s very confident and competent.
“Some may say she’s a bit young to be allowed to do tractor work but we feel that she’s better to learn now and by doing something that she has to take her time with rather than waiting until she’s 16 or 18 and only starting then.”
Peter says while much of the discussion around young people and machinery has focused on age to date, he believes the conversation should be around how well educated young people are in handling machinery.
“I see young fellas driving big tractors, pulling heavy weights, and they wouldn’t be as confident as our 15-year-old. I think it’s important that we look at how competent someone is as well as looking at their age when it comes to driving machinery.”
In terms of his younger children, Peter explained his seven-year-old, Georgie, shows calves (and has done since the age of four). She’s able to go into a pen, halter her own calf, lead it around the yard and she knows to stay in certain areas of the yard.
“The children know that there are certain areas of the farm, such as where the machinery is, where they are not allowed.
“Georgie helps bed calves, feed them nuts and bottle feed calves. We give her jobs that she likes doing and jobs that we believe she’s safe doing. She’d love to milk cows but she’s a bit short yet.
“The children grew up being aware of the dangers — Becky started milking cows with me when she was 11 and she was very good at it and she had a great interest in it. It’s something she’s always had a passion for and was able to milk the whole herd of cows at 12 years old but there’s always been somebody with her.
“We’re still conscious of the fact she’s still 15 and we always make sure there’s someone over the age of 18 with her. They mightn’t be as knowledgeable as her but they’re there as a back-up to take the work-load off her if needed.
“I believe that from a young age we need to educate people on the dangers of the work area of the farm and not leave them unsupervised but also expose them to farm life so that they can figure out where the dangers are.
“If I said to one of our kids when they were younger ‘you can’t go over there’, they’d always wonder what was over there, whereas if I take them there and show them why it’s a dangerous area, they’ll automatically think, ‘I’ve seen why it’s dangerous so I don’t need to learn any more’.
“Showing them why they shouldn’t be in a particular area is more effective than just telling them they shouldn’t be there.
“We want the kids to learn stockmanship and learn how to manage smaller animals so that as they get older they’ll be able to manage bigger animals. We wanted them to learn to treat animals with respect and that they’ll be shown respect by the animals in return.”
Gillian O’Sullivan, who is also a vet, manages the family dairy farm in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, with her husband Neil. They have four young kids.
“Our house is located adjacent to the farm, so you can look over the wall at the farm. There are three entrances to it, and we have double-locked all of them.
“We’ve made it a rule that all the kids understand from a very young age that they don’t go onto the farm on their own and that the farm is a dangerous place.
“We try and make time on a one-on-one basis so that they can come onto the yard with us at a time when things are a little bit quieter, and can spend time doing something with either myself or my husband.
“The kids are kept off the farm any time there is something dangerous going on, such as silage or calving season — anything that could be deemed high risk.
“My husband and I bring them to see the silage contractors cutting the silage from a distance and they love it.
“When we cut silage, my eldest, who is 11, came up to cover the pit with me. He had his high-visibility clothing on and was with me at all times. Then the other children, who are almost two, six and eight, came up with my husband to take a look from a distance.
“I think it’s important to show the kids what’s happening on the farm, but unless it’s a low-risk activity like feeding pet lambs, they need to be kept at a distance.
“We introduce them to low-risk situations where they can feel that they’re part of what’s going on, but be safe.
“Safety is paramount, you hear too many awful stories about kids not to be hyper-vigilant about farm safety because, unfortunately, when things go wrong, they usually have really awful outcomes.
“If you take a six-year-old out onto the farm, you can’t expect them to know all the risks and dangers. They just see all the fun things they can do, like climbing on hay bales, but the farm is not a playground.
“Even something as simple as jumping on the straw in the shed can be dangerous. The straw could be covering something dangerous, and if a child was to jump on that or fall off the straw, it could be terrible.
“I think you have to keep highlighting the fact that the farm is dangerous and the more you say it, the more likely it’ll sink in.”