An accident by any other name is still just as tragic

Every three days, a child dies in a farm accident.

Every three days, a child dies in a farm-related incident.

Make no mistake; this statement is true. But did we repeat ourselves? Or do those two statements mean different things? What does an “accident” mean?

When folks hear that a farm accident has occurred, we think perhaps of a sudden, unpredicted, and uncontrollable tragedy. But is that truly the case? In a commentary piece published in the Journal of Agromedicine this spring, Barbara Lee argues that we’re wrong in calling the incidents that lead to child death on farms “accidents.” The majority of farm injuries and deaths are preventable with improved safety features and more calculated risk-taking. Especially where children are working with adults who bear responsibility for the safety features and judgment calls involved, calling the harm an “accident” risks negating that the event was preventable.

When the word “accident” is used in a legal context, it often carries legal exoneration of responsibility because, as these are acts of a higher power, no blame is placed on the individuals involved. Indeed, no one is generally held responsible for the death of a child in a farm-related incident. Safety advocates aren’t arguing for legal responsibility, necessarily, but do want more transparency in how we communicate, with the hopes that it will lessen the occurrence of children dying on the farm.

Safety advocates have long argued against using the word “accident” when describing injuries that could have been avoided through better safety practices. Over 20 years ago, the National Traffic Safety Administration officially stopped referring to motor vehicle accidents and started calling them motor vehicle crashes. The significance of automobile safety is reinforced through the common dictionary understanding of accidents and crashes. Whereas an accident is an event that occurs by chance, a crash is when something breaks to pieces, for example by collision. Most people would agree that the latter more accurately describes injury-causing incidents in vehicles.

The National Farm Medicine Center is hopeful that when more child deaths are referred to as occurring by means of a farm incident, we can all move closer to preventing these deaths. “The intent is not to penalize adults who have made innocent errors of judgment or lack resources such as off-farm childcare, but to influence behavioral changes that increase safeguards for children and young workers in agricultural settings.” In this way, the law can achieve something other than penalizing those who are already suffering- it reminds us of the importance of careful word choice around important issues and the many other ways we need to work together to prevent tragedies.