Donnie Bishop began working on his neighbor’s farm in Brookfield when he was 14.
One February day in 1982, when he was 16, Bishop had a day off from school and decided to work. He was getting on a tractor in the middle of a cornfield when the power take-off, a shaft that can be used to transfer mechanical power from the tractor to other equipment, like a mower or auger, grabbed the leg of his overalls and pulled him in.
It ripped the clothes off his body and wrapped them around his neck.
“And when it got all my clothes to my neck, it took them off my neck and it took my arm,” Bishop said.
He had pulled himself free, but his arm had been ripped at the shoulder and was still in his clothing. Had he not gotten loose, he would have died.
The farmer on the tractor grabbed Bishop’s clothes and his arm and drove him to the hospital in Brookfield, where an ambulance sped him to a hospital in Columbia.
Child injuries and deaths
Just as farms can be dangerous for adults, they can be equally hazardous and deadly for children.
From 2003 to 2016, a total of 237 children died in agricultural work, according to a 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office.
About three children die from a agriculture-related incident every day, according to a 2018 factsheet from the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, which holds child injury prevention workshops and provides guidance for prevention programs and training to professionals.
A quarter of the deaths involved machinery, 17 percent involved motor vehicles like ATVs, and 16 percent were drownings. Other causes include suffocation, electrocution, animals, being struck by a falling object and falling.
Another 33 kids are injured on farms each day, said Barbara Lee, the center’s director. She defines “injured” as serious enough to be out of commission for more than four hours — more than just a scratch. She says incidents occur with younger children up to 6 years old even with a parent nearby.
“I use the analogy of construction. If farming is just as dangerous or more dangerous than construction, we would be appalled to see, like, 2- or 3-year-old kids in the construction zone or in the construction equipment,” Lee said.
“And yet in farming, they say, ‘Well … that’s how you get your kids to grow up to want to be farmers.’”
Different standards, missing data
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, different child labor requirements apply to agricultural occupations. There are no occupational restrictions for children aged 16 or 17 working in agriculture, for example.
The Department of Labor lists 11 activities as particularly hazardous for children under 16, like operating an over 20-horsepower power take-off and operating machinery like forklifts and potato combines. These orders, however, do not apply to children employed by a parent or person in place of a parent.
Child deaths in the agriculture sector made up more than half of the all workplace fatalities among children, even though the majority of workers under 18 work do other types of jobs, like food service, according to the GAO report.
The report also estimates that there were 4,774 work-related injuries to children aged 17 or under on farms, based on combined estimates of 2012 and 2014 data. The data also showed that a significant number of work-related child injuries happened while working in the farm owner’s household, rather than as hired help.
The report showed “fatalities were also disproportionately high among children aged 15 and under, children working in a family business and among children working for an employer with 10 or fewer workers.”
Congress had asked the GAO to do an update on a 2002 report on child labor, particularly in agriculture. But the agency had trouble finding good data, said Cindy Brown Barnes, GAO director of education workforce and income security.
“There’s no one comprehensive data source we could go to, so we had to use a number of databases to get an understanding of what was going on,” Brown Barnes said.
The GAO report used several sources from Bureau of Labor Statistics, like the current population survey. But even that survey doesn’t capture workers under age 15 or those who work less than 15 hours without pay for a family business.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looks at child injuries through the Childhood Agricultural Injury Prevention Survey, but Brown Barnes said that’s only a random sample of 50,000 farms.
Within the Department of Labor, GAO works with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. But that organization doesn’t monitor small family farms with less than 10 people.
The GAO report recommended increased monitoring and outreach for injury and illness of children 17 and under in the workforce, including agriculture. It also recommended looking into the feasibility of including household workers and those working on farms with 10 or fewer employees.
Tracking agriculture-related incidents would help agencies “as they plan their enforcement efforts, that they can address the risks faced by children, particularly those in agriculture,” Brown Barnes said.
Education alone is not enough
Bishop now works on a farm near Brookfield. His work usually involves sitting in a tractor, he said. He used to have a prosthetic, but it became outdated, and he could move better without it, he said.
“The way we do things is a lot different than it used to be. There’s quite a bit less hand work, we did a lot of hand work in the day. Now most days is getting on equipment and running it,” Bishop said.
Bishop says a big change in modern farm equipment comes with shields and warning stickers. But people take that for granted, he said.
“Loose articles around equipment is probably the biggest thing I would concentrate on” as far as safety, Bishop said.
These days, farm safety demonstrations often include the dangers of a power take-off, or PTO, the equipment that injured Bishop.
The Progressive Agriculture Foundation, a nonprofit based in Birmingham, Alabama, educates children on the dangers that come along with living on a farm. Its Safety Day program has reached over 1.75 million people through their clinics and services, including Missourians.
“We had a dummy made out of a Tyvek suit and straw and had it tied up to the PTO to have it show what happened,” said Jana Davidson, education content specialist for Progressive Agriculture.
The power take-off easily ripped the dummy apart.
These types of lessons are easier for children to grasp, Davidson said.
Education and adult oversight are not enough, said Lee. Agriculture must undergo a culture change so that adhering to important safety practices becomes the norm, Lee said. She compared it to the push to implement mandatory seat belts, which have become more acceptable over time.
“We know nearly all the injuries and even some of the deaths with the kids, there’s a parent right there. The child is being supervised,” Lee said. “But kids are just so fast or the equipment is just so strong that the supervision is not sufficient.”
This story was produced in cooperation with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting by students in a spring 2019 Investigative Reporting class at the University of Missouri School of Journalism taught by associate professor Sara Shipley Hiles.