Public service announcements, posters and other materials distributed by the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network warn parents to "keep kids away from tractors" because "it's easier to bury a tradition than a child."
The campaign follows a fierce fight two years ago over proposed child labor law changes that ended when the U.S. Labor Department backed off a plan to require paid farm workers to be 16 to use tractors and other power equipment. Few argue with the campaign's goal of keeping children safe, but it takes aim at long-standing practices in rural communities, where many parents grew up riding and driving tractors.
Marsha Salzwedel, an agricultural youth safety specialist with the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, said the latest effort is not meant to deter children from working on farms.
"We think it's beneficial for kids to work in ag," said Salzwedel, whose center is a leading partner in the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network. "What we're saying is that if you have a child working anywhere, you need to assess them and make sure they have a job they are capable of handling."
Two children younger than 16 were killed by tractors while working in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their deaths follow 25 from 2003 through 2011. Data for 2013 are not yet available.
Safety advocates believe those numbers underestimate the problem, however, because most accidents do not involve children who are being paid to work. A 14-year-old Ohio girl was killed and four relatives, including a baby and a toddler, were injured last month when a tractor flipped on its side. All five had been riding in the cab. Days earlier, a 5-year-old Pennsylvania boy fell off a tractor he was riding with his father, was run over and died.
Brittany Jablonsky, spokeswoman for the National Farmers Union, praised the campaign although her organization is not part of it.
"It's a serious message in the context of a serious problem," Jablonsky said, adding, "Perhaps not everyone realizes how risky these behaviors are."
The network ran a similar campaign in 2007, but Jablonsky said its latest effort may be timely as more people who didn't grow up on farms go into agriculture. New farmers might be less aware of the risks but easier to change in attitude and behavior, she said.
The campaign's goal is to keep children younger than 12 off tractors and to have older children complete safety courses and pass an assessment before driving equipment.
"The research tells us that children under 14 years of age are not developmentally ready to operate tractors," Salzwedel said. "They don't have the physical reach or the strength. They don't have the cognitive abilities. They don't even have the visual field that allows them to see well enough to operate a tractor."