Facing public outcry from farmers and politicians, the U.S. Department of Labor is abandoning proposed rules that, in the name of safety, would have barred young hired farm workers from performing a range of hazardous tasks.
The department issued a statement late Thursday saying the withdrawal was made in response to thousands of comments about how the rules might affect family-owned farms. Instead, the government will work with agricultural groups to develop an educational program aimed at reducing accidents for young farm workers, the statement said.
Child safety advocates called the decision stunning and disappointing.
"We felt the revisions were modest and overdue," said Scott Heiberger, spokesman for the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., which has focused on farm safety for children. He and others contend the department should have done a better job clarifying what the rules meant and answering concerns. The proposed rules "pertained to hired youth, yet the family farm became the centerpiece issue of those who disagreed with the revisions," Heiberger said.
Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, said the Labor Department's sudden decision means children will continue to die in farm accidents that could have been prevented. "There was tremendous heat, and I don't think it helped that it was an election year," he said.
Written to bar hired workers younger than 16 from tasks such as crawling up structures taller than 6 feet, vaccinating livestock and driving ATVs, the rules were at the center of a firestorm that included more than 10,000 people submitting comments to the Labor Department. Capitol Hill lawmakers proposed legislation to stop the changes, which had not yet been finalized.
Students working as part of an education program would have been exempted from some of the restrictions, such as driving certain types of tractors. Children working for their farming parents also would have been exempt -- able to perform any chores their parents assigned to them.
Critics contended the rules went too far in restricting children from working on farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives, a practice that reduces costs and teaches children how a farm operates.
Darwin, Minn., farmer John Juusola, who has hired more than two dozen students to help him over nearly five decades of farming, called the Labor Department's change of heart "good news."
He has yet to have a child injured on his farm, he said, and he is careful to assign tasks appropriate to the child's age.
"It's good news for kids," said Juusola, 69. "They can get out and get some experience."
The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times that of their peers working elsewhere, proponents of the proposal pointed out. They contend that the 40-year-old existing rules for children working on farms need updating for modern equipment and mechanization -- and need to be brought in line with rules in other industries.
Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union, which represents more than 11,000 farm families in the state, said his group didn't disagree with every proposed rule, but there were too many unanswered questions.
"There were definitely things in there that we had concerns about and we didn't get good answers," Petersen said. "It also became very emotional, and rightly so."
Petersen said he thinks scrapping the proposal and starting over is a good step.
"We want to maintain safe workers, but we want to make sure that we're bringing in the next generation at the same time," he said.
The Labor Department statement said the regulation would not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie 612-673-7102