14-year-old ag student washes a tractor.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

When political rhetoric trumps child safety

  • April 30, 2012 - 7:43 PM

The Obama administration made a terrible mistake last week by dropping proposed rules designed to protect young children under age 16 hired as farmhands. Caving to public pressure from Big Agriculture and Republican lawmakers puts kids' lives on the line.

Even for adults, farming remains one of the nation's most dangerous occupations. A tragedy near Center City, Minn., over the weekend serves as a sobering reminder. Cole Gustafson, 56, an agricultural economist at North Dakota State University, died Saturday after a tractor accident on his parents' farm. Tractor accidents are the leading cause of farm fatalities.

The Labor Department was on the right track last year when it proposed 15 new rules to keep young hired farm laborers safe. Many of the suggested safety measures were practical, such as seat belts for tractors and rollover bars on farm vehicles in which children often are hurt.

Nearly 40 years have passed since the rules were last updated, and farming has changed dramatically. The Labor Department rightly wanted to ban young children from jobs such as handling pesticides or working in manure pits. And they were right to say kids shouldn't work in grain bins, where far too many have fallen and suffocated.

Studies of farm accidents and fatalities bear out that some jobs are just too dangerous for the young.

Admittedly, some of the proposed rules overreached and needed to be abandoned or modified. But to abandon the entire safety reform effort because of public outcry from special-interest groups put political gain above children's well-being, and that should never be the case. GOP lawmakers who denounced the changes as an attack on family farms are also guilty of jeopardizing child workers.

The rules were never meant to apply to children working on their own families' farms, as some critics claimed. Unfortunately, as with too many issues, when the rhetoric gets heated and the outcry is large, the Obama administration caves.


Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer. Follow her on Twitter @StribSusan.



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