Editorial: Make farms safer for child workers

  • Updated: April 20, 2012 - 8:08 PM

But the Labor Department should modify its proposed rules.

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A corn farm in Illinois.

Photo: Seth Perlman, Associated Press

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Every year we hear horrific stories of young children who die or are maimed while working on U.S. farms. Their tractors roll over on them. They slip into grain bins and suffocate. Or their limbs get caught in augers, balers or other powerful machinery.

Although the numbers are declining, the fatality rate for young agricultural workers remains four times higher than for youths in other jobs, and the injuries more severe. So with good intentions, the Department of Labor has proposed updating decades-old safety rules for children under age 16 hired to work on farms or ranches.

While some of the 15 proposals are overdue, sensible safety measures, others overreach and seem unnecessarily intrusive, as many farmers and ranchers have complained. Even the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, whose research on farm injuries guided the proposals, has asked the Labor Department for modifications.

The department is reviewing the public's feedback, including more than 10,000 comments, to determine what changes, if any, it will make. In the meantime, some Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate are making political hay of the situation, even putting forth bills that would prevent the proposals from ever taking effect. (The House version contains the misleading title, "Preserving America's Family Farms Act.")

They're calling the proposals an attack on family farmers, but that's more political rhetoric than reality. The Labor Department's proposals don't pertain to youths working on their parents' farms, but only children hired by others.

The most constructive of the proposals would prevent child employees from handling pesticides and other chemical hazards and explosives, and prohibit them from working at heights greater than 6 feet or inside grain bins and manure pits. They also would be protected from the types of heavy machinery that studies show cause the most injuries and fatalities for their age group. Practical safety measures are also called for, such as seat belts for tractors or rollover bars on relevant farm vehicles.

But farmers also make the point that working at a young age helps to cultivate America's future farmers. Rather than an outright ban of some activities, greater supervisory measures and training should be considered. Easing restrictions on some power-driven equipment is also prudent, since studies show that youths can ably operate hand tools. The rules also need to provide exemptions for children working on relatives' farms, such as those owned by grandparents, uncles or cousins.

Collin Peterson, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, told an editorial writer this week that he fears the Labor Department can't be reasoned with and that the proposals may need to be scrapped altogether. We hope that's not the case and that leaders will work together to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act removed children under 16 from hazardous work for safety reasons, except in agriculture. The new proposals are "modest and overdue, bringing agriculture closer in line with other industries," according to the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wis.

Presently, young workers may do wide-ranging tasks, such as picking strawberries, operating powerful machinery and handling livestock. Studies show that child migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent data, from 2009, show that nearly 16,000 youths under age 20 who lived, worked or visited a farm were injured. Additional studies showed that most injured youths are 10 to 15 years old.

Last year, two Illinois girls, both 14, were fatally electrocuted while working in a soggy field detasseling corn. Sadly, such horrific farm accidents will continue to happen, but children shouldn't be put in harm's way due to poor safety standards.

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  • CHILD FARM LABOR


    "Evidence indicates that working on a farm owned or operated by their family is not less hazardous for youth. Between 2003-2008, 79 percent of the fatalities to youth less than 16 years of age in agricultural production occurred while working in a family owned business."


    Source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

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