It’s a story that’s sending a collective shudder through the farming community — and a powerful message.
A four-year-old boy died of head injuries last year after he fell out of the skid-steer bucket he was riding in with his brother while their father was using it to move wood chips on their Ontario farm.
It was a tragic end to what could have been a normal day on any number of farms across this country and one that left many farm families thanking their lucky stars it didn’t happen to them.
But the court’s response to the incident means feeling sympathy for the family and thanking the luck of the draw is no longer an adequate response.
In a precedent-setting ruling, the father was found criminally negligent in the death of his son. He won’t do jail time, but he loses his licence to drive for 10 years and will have to perform 240 hours of community service. The judge in the case reportedly advised the farmer he should put in those hours promoting farm safety.
The judge ruled that the accident was not only preventable, it was also predictable — the father had to have known his attention would be diverted from the kids in the bucket because of the task he was performing.
This is a tough one to swallow if you’re a farmer with kids. Many farm families will tell you they know from a very early age which kids are born with farming in their blood. They’re the ones who can’t wait to put on their rubber boots and follow their dads out the door in the morning. They clamour to be riding along on the tractor or combine and they can’t wait for their first opportunities to take on some of the jobs that need to be done.
Farm-safety advisers openly acknowledge the temptation to involve kids in the farm operation from an early age is a compelling one and there can be many positive spinoffs ranging from skills to better overall health.
“The farm is a great place to live and raise children,” says Robert Gobeil, a farm-safety specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA). But because it combines work and life, he said keeping everyone safe involves “complex” decisions that parents must make daily.
“Of course everybody in general wants to go to bed the same way we woke up in the morning — that goes without saying — but hopefully this case will send a message and remind everybody that they have a legal responsibility for health and safety in a workplace.
“This is a challenge in the sector because the farm is a workplace, but it is also where we live and raise our families.”
There are a handful of fatalities every year because parents didn’t find that safe balance between the necessities of work and childcare — plus their desire to inspire.
Gobeil said the majority of deaths are children of the farm operator (72 per cent), they are bystanders or tagging along (80 per cent) and they are male (80 per cent.)
“Two of the three top mechanisms of fatal injuries are tractor related. At CASA, we just promote keeping children away from tractors in general. It is clearly, according to statistical information, not a safe place to be,” he said.
There are resources available to help farmers involve their kids around the farm while keeping them safe. One such resource is an interactive website Cultivate Safety.
It separates farm tasks into age ranges and offers assessment guides to help families identify whether their kids are ready physically and cognitively to take them on, as well as how much supervision is needed. For example, the first age range that involves the operation of farm equipment starts at 14, and only with regular supervision. It also spells out some of the risks associated with common farm duties such as lifting, bending, entrapment or exposure to contaminants.
If kids can’t come to the field to learn hands on, maybe part of the answer in this age of digital technology, virtual reality and video games is to bring the field to them.