Match work to ability

Young workers should:

Young workers should be physically and mentally capable of tasks assigned to them on the farm, says an agricultural health and safety specialist.

Glen Blahey of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association said the Model Policy for Canadian Youth Employment in Agriculture is a voluntary set of guidelines to help keep young farm workers safe.

Adapted from a U.S. version developed by youth safety advocates, it provides voluntary guidelines based on best practices in training and supervision, job assignments and work hours for youth.

“Its intent was to stimulate thinking on the part of parents and prospective employers,” Blahey said.

Parents often proudly speak of milestones reached by their children at certain ages regarding time spent in the combine or field, but the statistics reveal a host of accidents.

“Unfortunately by age 14, they’ve experienced an injury or died while trying to do the work of an adult,” said Blahey.

Will Pickett, a public health researcher at Queen’s University, helped develop North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks, which looks at the norms of child development in relation to when they might be able to handle different farm tasks.

It mapped 45 tasks and made recommendations.

“Driving a tractor with a very large load takes a very different mental ability and physical strength,” he said.

Today’s high tech machines can largely run themselves with minimal intervention by the human operator, but Blahey had cautionary tales about giving children that responsibility.

“Can you put an eight-year-old in a room and expect them to remain focused. No. But what makes that different on a tractor?” he asked.

Marsha Salzwedel, a research specialist with the National Farm Medicine Centre in Wisconsin, said farm parents often feel their children are physically stronger, faster and more capable than urban kids.

“Sometimes there’s a tendency for parents to overestimate the types of tasks they are able to do,” she said.

There’s also a sentiment that accidents happen to others, not them.

“That contributes to parents allowing kids to do things that aren’t safe, such as riding as extra passengers, she said.

Blahey said farming is a good opportunity for children to grow, as long as the tasks are suited to their skills and abilities.

Many young farm workers work alone with minimal supervision, which is a vastly different experience than other part-time jobs at a retail or fast food outlet.

“If there’s a mechanical issue and something plugs up … their first instinct is, ‘I’ll fix it myself,’ ” he said, citing their desire to demonstrate competence and avoid bothering Dad.

“Those desires overshadow rational thought,” Blahey said.

Young workers need adequate training, skills assessment, support and supervision appropriate to their level of competency and maturity. Hours of work must be appropriate and allow for regular breaks.

They also need to know it’s OK to report problems.

“You have obligations, both moral and legal, to provide training before they start work to ensure they know your expectations of them, the hazards and precaution,” he said.

“Think of them as someone’s family member.”

Blahey grew up helping around his family farm and recalled his father’s words: “There’s only one of you, and if it gets broken it’s no good to me and can’t be productive, so let’s not get it broken.”

A close call for his father also prompted changes in cattle handling.

He started using gates and crowding panels to keep animals and humans out of the same pen after he was knocked to the ground by a steer in a corral.

“There was a realization there that there has to be a better way to do it,” said Blahey.

“Give pause and think about it before we launch off into it,” he said.

For more information on the Canadian Model Youth Policy, visit

Policy Summary

Youth workers should:

  • Always be under the direct supervision of and in close physical proximity to at least one responsible adult supervisor.
  • Be provided with clear explanations of the allowed and prohibited work activities in and around the workplace and understand their rights and responsibilities at work.

Supervisors should:

  • Know existing age-based work rules.
  • Understand the physical and cognitive abilities of youth and their need for extra supervision and frequent training.
  • Know basic emergency response practices, both general and specific to the workplace.

Workers under the age of 18 should not:

  • Mix, load or apply pesticides.
  • Operate moving equipment in close proximity to other workers, operate equipment that others ride or provide on-the-job transportation to other workers.
  • Drive farm machinery on or across public roads or highways unless they have received documented training and are licensed or certified to operate specific farm vehicles.
  • Operate tractors or other ride-on machinery that is not equipped with roll-over protection structure and seatbelts, and all workers must use safety equipment at all times.
  • Work on, around or in grain handling facilities or confined spaces, such as upright silos, grain bins and manure pits/tanks.

Other considerations when employing young workers:

  • Certain types of equipment account for a large percentage of on-farm injuries because of the complexity of operation, speed and power. Strong consideration should be given to age, machine-specific training and experience requirements for any employee allowed to operate large tractors, all-terrain vehicles, skid-steer loaders, augers/conveyers, elevators, chainsaws or stationary power equipment such as chippers.
  • Work involving prolonged exposure to extreme heat, cold or other adverse conditions such as storms should be limited. Training should be provided about symptoms of heat stress and hypothermia along with prevention strategies.
  • Young people should be given more frequent breaks than what is recommended for adults.
  • Opportunities for ample hydration should also be made available.
  • Noise exposure is a recognized hazard in farming. Young people should be provided with appropriate hearing protection and training to prevent hearing loss.

Work hours:

  • Employment conditions for 14- and 15-year-olds should include daily work hour limits as well as start and stop times that are comparable for this age group in non-agricultural employment.
  • There should be specific start and stop times for 16- and 17-year-olds that may differ between the school year and summer and between school nights and weekends to assure students have adequate rest and study time.
  • Sixteen- and 17-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and who support themselves may be subject to fewer restrictions with regard to hours of work, although hazardous operations should remain off limits without student learner or other certified training program participation.
  • Overnight shift work in field operations should never be assigned to workers younger than 18.

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