Lancaster County is a state leader in agriculture, with thousands of small, intensive, family-run farm operations.
It is also a state leader in farm fatalities, with 54 deaths from 2000 through 2014 — or three to four each year.
The number of fatal farm incidents here was triple that of second-place York County, which had 17 during the period.
Given that Lancaster County has more than 5,000 farms — by far the most in the state — it’s not surprising that it would also have the most farm fatalities.
But the death rate here is unusually high, even when the number of farms is taken to account, an analysis shows. And that is probably due, at least in part, to the county’s volume of small Plain Sect farm operations that involve lots of family labor, one safety expert said.
LNP looked at 15 years of state records compiled by the Penn State Extension, and calculated fatal incidents as a rate per 10,000 farms.
In that analysis, Lancaster County had an average annual rate of 6.60 deaths per 10,000 farms. That was the highest rate among the 26 Pennsylvania counties with 1,000 or more farms.
It was also 49 percent higher than the statewide average of 4.42 deaths per 10,000 farms.
If Lancaster County’s rate was the same as the state average, it would have had 18 fewer deaths— 36 instead of 54 — over the 15-year period.
The number of farm fatalities here was especially high in the most recent five-year period. The county recorded 22 farm deaths from 2010-14, according to Penn State’s data.
By comparison, there were 16 farm deaths here from 2005-09, and 16 from 2000 to 2004. The reports do not identify specific cases by name or location.
Penn State has not yet released statewide figures for 2015, but newspaper records show there were six farm deaths here last year — setting a pace that’s well ahead of the average in recent years.
One farm death has been recorded here so far in 2016: An 11-year-old boy died when a 1,200-pound hay bale fell on him in a Drumore Township barn.
Reasons for high rate
Lancaster County's higher rate of fatal farm accidents is likely related to the fact that it has smaller farms, many of which are operated by Plain Sect farmers who make use of family labor, Dennis Murphy, an agricultural safety and health professor at Penn State University, wrote in an email.
The average farm size in Lancaster County is 78 acres — the smallest among the 26 Pennsylvania counties that have 1,000 or more farms.
Smaller farms usually have smaller and older equipment which may not be designed as safely, or maintained in as safe a manner, as larger and newer equipment, Murphy wrote.
Larger farms that have hired labor are under greater pressure, he explained, to train workers and reduce or correct hazards to avoid lawsuits and higher rates for workers compensation insurance.
In addition, Murphy noted, the urbanization of Lancaster County — and its large tourism industry — means more vehicles traveling past farms and sharing roads with farm equipment and horse and buggies, adding yet another layer of risk that is less pronounced in more-rural counties.
Labor law exemptions
Victims of fatal farm incidents are disproportionately the young and the old, according to Penn State, and that appears to hold true in Lancaster County.
Ages of the seven victims here in 2015 and 2016 were 1, 3, 5, 9, 11, 63 and 89, according to newspaper reports.
State and federal labor laws limit the activities of youths who are hired to work on farms, protecting them from especially hazardous situations.
But children and teens helping on family farms under their parents’ supervision are exempt from those restrictions.
Those exemptions are backed by farm groups that argue that parents are the best judges of what responsibilities to give children and teens as they help on family farms and receive training on how to run them.
A review of newspaper records indicates that, in the past few years, most of the children killed on local farms were not operating farm equipment.
Instead, they were struck by a piece of equipment or a vehicle they were not operating themselves, fell into manure pits or feed tubs, or fell off a piece of equipment on which they were riding with a family member.
In the only fatal incident so far in 2016, an 11-year-old Drumore Township boy died when a 1,200-pound hay bale fell on him in a barn.
Some, but not all, of the victims in recent years were members of Plain Sect farm families.
While Penn State tracks fatalities, no one has complete data on the number of non-fatal farm injuries in Pennsylvania, said Kay L. Moyer, a farm safety educator with the Lancaster County Extension Service.
“It is pretty difficult to get every nurse and every doctor to ask all the questions the same way,” she said.
Moyer is among those on the front lines of extensive local efforts to prevent farm injuries and deaths.
Those local efforts include dozens of farm-safety presentations Moyer gives each year at Plain Sect schools and to home school groups, and annual farm safety days sponsored by Safe Kids Lancaster County and Lancaster General Health.
A key goal of local programs is to prevent common causes of on-farm childhood head injuries — being struck by a large animal, falling down hay holes and falling off farm equipment.
About 100 local farmers have recently received free hay hole covers as part of a new outreach that is continuing this year.
Despite the many hazards on farms — and the young age of many farm fatality victims — prosecutions for negligence are rare.
“Essentially, we have to be able to prove a criminal mindset existed in supporting any sort of charge in court,” Brett Hambright, a spokesman for District Attorney Craig Stedman, wrote in an email.
In most cases that would mean proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a death was intentional or clearly resulted from gross negligence.
“In order to make out a criminal charge, we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the parent or guardian's actions or lack thereof met that criminal mindset in placing the child/decedent at risk of death or serious bodily harm,” Hambright wrote.
“We look at each incident individually in determining if we can prove a charge,” Hambright wrote. “These incidents are all tragic, especially when considering the age of some of the decedents, but we must consider the law and not act simply on emotions.”
The most recent case was in 2006, he said. According to newspaper records, a farmer was charged with reckless endangerment that year after he accidentally turned on a feed mixer while his 8-year-old son was inside, killing the boy.
The prosecution prompted a chorus of criticism from those who argued that the farmer made a tragic mistake, but did not commit a crime.
One critic questioned whether prosecutors would start charging parents who allow their children to play dangerous sports or ride motorcycles, which are known to be more hazardous than cars.
The farmer was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to spend 50 hours of community service teaching farm safety.