Keeping kids safe

03/16/2012 @ 12:01pm

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 support.

"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 been taken.

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 never had."

At the time, Adams says the farm community had the stoic mind-set that accidents were an unfortunate, but unavoidable, part of working on farms.

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 says.

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 deĀ­cade 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 farms).

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.

Grassroots outreach

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 budgets.

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 games.

"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 communities."

 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 ( 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 and fatalities."

Ingrained attitudes

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 fatalities:

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 or competence.

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 are essential.

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 Spanish.

Part-time and hobby farms and agritourism also offer fertile ground. The website ( 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"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 bandwagon."

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."