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Labor Department Targets Workplace Safety for Farm Kids

For many kids who grow up on the farm, “learning to drive” means learning to operate a tractor or other farm machinery even before driving a car.

Tractors are central to family farm life, and for this reason advocacy groups and members of Congress have responded critically to recent proposals from the U.S. Department of Labor that would prohibit children under 16 from many dangerous farm tasks, including driving tractors and handling pesticides. The reaction was so intense that on Monday, the agency extended the original November 1 public comment deadline for another month.

Traditional agriculturalists feel that these restrictions would jeopardize the future of family farms; on the other hand, child and labor advocates claim that the changes are necessary to safeguard vulnerable youth. About 1.3 million children under age 20 currently live on farms in the U.S.

The new provisions would include an exemption for families to let children work on farms owned by their parents. However, the changes would still impact many small farms that hire local youth during summer and harvest seasons.

Agricultural groups are also heated about the changes, claiming that bureaucrats don’t understand how agriculture works. Family farms often hire kids from the area when they are out of school in the summer, just when farm labor is most needed.  Those young employees would no longer be able to drive four-wheelers that many farms rely on, nor could they mow grass, operate tractors or work around animals.

Jordan Dux, national affairs coordinator with the Nebraska Farm Bureau, also explains that many extended families organized under a corporation – extended families that rely on their kids — would not be exempt: “So kids of individuals who are involved in a family corporation would no longer be able to help mom and dad on the ranch, on the farm. They wouldn’t be able to work with animals. They wouldn’t be able to work on hay wagons stacking bales 6 feet tall,” he said. “There are lots of … typical farm practices that … would be outlawed by the Department of Labor.”

Critics of the Labor Department’s plan also claim that the restrictions would handicap the recruitment of the next generation of farmers and ranchers –especially youth organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America.

However, safety concerns are paramount in farming (which is already one of the most dangerous occupations), and the issue becomes even more urgent when they effect the lives and well-being of children.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that an average of 104 children die every year from farm-related injuries, and over 22,000 kids suffer other serious injuries.

Many child safety advocates welcomed the Labor Department’s announcement; yet others, like Barry Estabrook, feel that regulations do not go far enough, claiming that in light of the extent of injuries, the proposal is “timid at best.”  Unlike counterparts in other occupations, children involved in agricultural labor have little protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Estabrook said. Young people who work on farms “have suffered under a federally mandated double standard,” Estabrook argues on his “Politics of the Plate” blog. “I don’t see it as any more ludicrous to envision a child driving a bulldozer or a backhoe on a construction site than driving a backhoe in the farm fields. What is the fundamental difference?”

The Labor Department also defends its proposals to restrict anyone under age 18 from working at stockyards, commercial feedlots or grain elevators, all of which have recently been sites of tragic deaths of child laborers. Of the 26 workers who suffocated in grain elevator deaths last year, six were under the age of sixteen, according to a Purdue University study.

Emery Reddy will be following developments on this issue and reporting on hearings from the Labor Department in the coming months. We welcome you to check back for regular updates.

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