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Keeping kids safe
Marilyn Adams still recalls the beauty of the sunrise she
saw from her kitchen window on October 15, 1986. She never imagined that 24
hours later, she would watch the dawn of a new day from the window of a Des
Moines, Iowa, hospital room, where her 11-year-old son, Keith, was on life
"We had no idea how dangerous a gravity-flow wagon
could be," Adams says. "Keith was just a little boy. But he was left
alone to do an adult job."One year after Keith suffocated in a
gravity-flow grain wagon, Adams launched Farm Safety 4 Just Kids (FS4JK). This
year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the nonprofit she created to raise
awareness of health and safety hazards for children on farms. In those 25
years, FS4JK has reached about 6 million farm and rural youth and families.
Grain suffocation warning decals are standard today on new
gravity-flow wagons. But in 1987, as her daughter, Kelly, researched the
dangers of flowing grain for an FFA public speaking contest, Adams found a 1979
Purdue University recommendation for warning decals. She realized no action had
She helped Iowa FFA apply for a grant to design and
distribute warning decals for gravity flow wagons and bins. Next, she convinced
members of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers to appoint her to a
committee that was writing safety standards for gravity-flow wagons."I
didn't know what to do," she says. "We were just a family reaching
out to find a way to provide other farm families with safety information we
At the time, Adams says the farm community had the stoic
mind-set that accidents were an unfortunate, but unavoidable, part of working
She began to speak out, using her unique platform as a farm
woman and mother grieving the loss of her son. "No one could tell me a
child's death was a cost of doing business," Adams says. "I believed
then and believe now that most injuries and fatalities can be prevented."
By December 1988, she had obtained start-up funds from a
fledging Iowa group, the National Coalition for Agricultural Safety and Health
(N-CASH). "I needed to do more than tell my story," she says. "I
needed help to save the lives of kids working on farms."But she had no
solid data documenting children's involvement in farm chores.
Working with University of Illinois researchers, Successful
Farming magazine agreed to survey 421 of its readers with children ages 15 and
younger. The results revealed about 65% of farm boys were driving tractors
before age 12. Almost 30% were driving tractors at ages 7 to 9.When Adams
testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in support of N-CASH in 1989, she
used the survey results published in the February 1989 issue of Successful
Farming magazine to reinforce her testimony. "It was all I had," she
A lack of national injury and fatality data also was an
obstacle to expanding the safety outreach for youth. She learned that
University of Washington pediatrician Fred Rivara had published a study a decade
earlier showing that, on average, 300 farm kids under 19 were killed annually;
at least 28,500 more were seriously injured.FS4JK cited those figures until
1997, when Adams asked Rivara for an update.
Based on 1990-1993 data, he determined that 104 kids, on
average, were killed each year on U.S. farms and ranches. But he also found a
10% increase in injuries. FS4JK launched its 10-year anniversary campaign with
the slogan, "104! No More!"
Over the past 15 years, government-funded data collection
has helped fill the research void. Today it's clear that progress has been
made. A 2011 USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service survey conducted for
the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reveals the
rate of childhood injuries for kids who visit, live, or work on U.S. farms had
declined by about 60% since 1998 (but only by 48% for children living on
From 1998-2009, the rate of injuries fell from 16.6 to 6.8
per 1,000 farms. The rate of injury takes into account the smaller number of
farms and fewer youth who live, visit, or are hired on farms.
Twenty-five years ago, farm safety materials were directed
toward adults, with no intent to engage kids. Most of the materials were
developed and disseminated by Extension safety specialists working with limited
In addition to grain wagon safety decals, Adams sought help
to create a model gravity-flow wagon to demonstrate suffocation dangers. FS4JK
education director Shari Burgus was hired in 1991 to develop other hands-on
materials, ranging from hazard scavenger hunts to safety kits, videos, and
"In the early years, Farm Safety 4 Just Kids met three
important needs," says Deborah Reed, University of Kentucky professor and
a former FS4JK board member. "First, it offered support to families who
had lost children to farm injuries. Second, it created a moderate platform
balancing the realities of rural life with more ideal prescribed safety
solutions. Third, its educational programs and resources promoted positive
safety knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors for youth, their families, and
Adams was determined
to raise the profile of childhood injuries and fatalities. She recruited First
Lady Barbara Bush as FS4JK's honorary chairperson, and in 1991 Mrs. Bush came
to Des Moines to shine a spotlight on farm safety.
In 1992, Burgus launched state and local chapters to
facilitate networking, to distribute materials, and to host farm safety day
camps and other community-based activities. Working closely with FFA, chapters
grew by leaps and bounds from 1992 to 2002. Today there are over 121 chapters
in 27 states and four Canadian provinces. "Chapters are an integral part
of FS4JK," says Tyler Vacha, FS4JK chapter and membership director.
Beginning in 2007, thanks to sponsorship from ADM, Monsanto,
and Cargill, outreach coordinators were added to nine states: Illinois,
Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Texas. In
2011, outreach coordinators and the chapter network organized more than 1,120
community events involving 170,000 children, youth, and families. "Our
goal is to have an outreach coordinator in every state," Vacha says.
During the 1990s, other child safety advocates emerged,
dramatically changing the landscape of farm safety for youth. The National
Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield,
Wisconsin, formed a task force to produce age-appropriate guidelines for kids'
farm chores in 1999 and later created safe play area materials
(www.marshfieldclinic.org). FS4JK also partners with the National Education
Center for Agricultural Safety in Peosta, Iowa, the International Society for
Agricultural Safety and Health, the Iowa Center for Agricultural Safety and
Health, NIOSH, to name a few.
"Many other organizations, corporate sponsors, and
government agencies have played a role and continue to work on this issue,"
Adams says. "They deserve much of the credit for the reduction in injuries
Despite this expanded safety network, much remains to be
done. From 1995 to 2002, on average, 113 youth under age 20 years died annually
on farms and over 16,000 were injured, according to Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) data. The majority of injuries to youth under age 10 are
nonworking, bystander injuries.
Three underlying factors continue to cause injuries and
1. The merger of farmwork and family life. Farms remain a
blend of home, industrial workplace, and child care facility. Parents often don't
recognize the hazards from a child's perspective. In 2006, only 30% of farm
households with kids under the age of 8 reported having a fenced play area.
2. The desire to instill youth with a work ethic. "We
raise responsible kids," Adams says. "That poses a hazard because
they want to get involved. But the risks don't outweigh the benefits."
3. The failure to assign age-appropriate tasks, along with
lack of training. Physical size or age alone does not guarantee good judgment
Four specific safety hot spots include:
1. ATVs. Youth often lack the size and skill to handle ATVs.
Most deaths stem from head trauma. Factors are a lack of helmets, outsized
ATVs, and driving on public roads. Kids under 16 account for 28% of injuries,
according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
2. Horses and farm animals. Youth ages 10 to 15 have a
higher risk of injuries from horses and farm animals. Teen and youth riders
have a higher incidence of head injuries than other riders; equestrian helmets
3. Grain bins and wagons. Purdue University research shows
that youth ages 1 to 15 were involved in about 20% of grain-related fatalities
on farms in 2010. The average age of youth who suffocate in grain wagons is 10.
4. Tractors. Studies show that tractors account for a
majority of fatalities to teens working on farms. New research at the
University of California-Davis indicates that youth-related injuries and
fatalities result from a mismatch between physical and cognitive abilities and
assigned tasks. The research suggests that youth under age 14 and physically
smaller kids have inadequate fields of vision. Younger kids who are extra
riders also are at risk.
As FS4JK looks to the future, challenges of unsafe old
machinery linger as new ones crop up. Educational efforts today focus on a more
diverse audience, including a pesticide safety comic book and ATV and chemical
safety kits in Spanish. A 2009 regional workshop in California was conducted in
Part-time and hobby farms and agritourism also offer fertile
ground. The website (www.fs4jk.org) and Facebook are focal points for education
and marketing."Funding will remain a challenge in the future," Adams
says. "We'll also continue to need more dedicated volunteers and chapters
to deliver our message."
Trevor Hoff, FS4JK national youth spokesperson, 21, is one
such volunteer. The Windsor, Maryland, college student was 14 when the tractor
he was driving rolled over him after he climbed down. The upper half of his
body, including his face, was crushed. He was airlifted to Johns Hopkins
Hospital, where he spent four months. (Learn more on YouTube.com.)"As I
lay on the ground, all I could see was the silo and the blue sky," he
says. "I should be dead. But I believe I've been kept in this world to get
the message out for farm safety and to save other kids from going through what
happened to me."
Adams announces June 1 retirement
Following the death of her 11-year-old son, Keith, Marilyn
Adams learned that a 12-year-old Kalona, Iowa, boy 125 miles away had
suffocated in a gravity-flow wagon only two weeks earlier. "It didn't make
the news here," she says. "We never would have put our son in that
dangerous situation if we had known."
Adams was able to leave her job and launch Farm Safety 4
Just Kids, thanks to start-up funds from the National Coalition for
Agricultural Safety and Health chaired by Kelley Donham. "But by April
1989, we were almost out of funding," Adams says. "The chair of our
board, Burt Kross, and I went to Dow Chemical with a funding proposal. We had
$7 in the bank when we received the first check of its multiyear commitment."
When Adams asked First Lady Barbara Bush to serve as honorary
chairperson, some felt Adams was overreaching. But Mrs. Bush was persuaded. "It's
hard to say no to Marilyn Adams," Mrs. Bush said. "Listen, I'm on her
In 1997, Adams wrote Rhythm of the Seasons, a 52-page,
full-color book that traces her emotional journey after the loss of her son and
shows how she turned the experience of loss into hope.
Adams will retire from her position as spokesperson and
founding president on June 1, 2012. She'll remain on the board of directors and
be available for a limited number of speaking engagements. She plans to spend
more time with her daughters and grandchildren."I feel a sense of
accomplishment," she says. "We're seeing fewer extra riders on
tractors. We're seeing more training. The time is right. Farm Safety 4 Just
Kids is in the hands of dedicated staff. I think we're headed in the right
direction for change."