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No middle ground on youth farm labor

Government, farm organizations, safety advocates, and legislators share blame for failure to update safeguards for young teens hired to work on farms.

Many farm groups and farmers welcomed the news last week that the U.S. Dept. of Labor had withdrawn proposed child ag labor rules. The proposed rules would have tightened hired work roles on farms for 12- to 15-year-olds, restricting machinery operation and work in and around silos and for 16- and 17-yearolds, working in commercial grain handling facilities. The comment period for the proposed rules drew thousands of written comments.

The proposed federal rules maintained an exemption for youth working on their parents’ farm. But critics pointed out that the language could have prevented youth from working on a family farm that was incorporated, or structured as an LLC. The U.S. Dept. of Labor (DOL) had announced that it was reworking the parental exemption language.

But the entire proposal was withdrawn late last week in an announcement that concluded, “Instead the Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders – such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Future Farmers of America, and 4-H – to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.”

“The work toward this rule-making process had been going on for years,” says Mary Miller, who works as a child labor and young worker specialist at the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. “But we did not even get to see the DOL’s response to public comments. People were reacting before they even saw possible revisions.”

Proposed changes in the 51-page DOL document withdrawn from consideration also included:

  • Youth enrolled in tractor-safety training would have completed 90 hours of training, up from the current 20-hour training. (Enrolled youth could work and operate farm machinery while taking the training to earn certification.)

  • Youth would not have been allowed to work at heights of over 6 ft.

  • Youth would have been banned from work at grain elevators.

  • Youth would not be allowed to operate tractors that lacked rollover protection and a seat belt

The penalty for employers who knowingly violated the law, resulting in the injury or death of a hired youth, would have been substantial. However, the proposed revisions did not include any increased means of legal enforcement.

Need for Update

The original Hazardous Occupations Orders for Agricultural Employment were adopted 45 years ago as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The most recent update to the Agricultural Child Labor Hazardous Occupations Orders (Ag H.O.) was made in 1970.

According to the DOL, 41,476 youth ages 14 or 15 years were directly hired by farm operators in 2006. Of that number, 7,565 reported operating a tractor as part of their employment.

“Even though there were significant concerns with many proposed rule changes, there’s a need to review and revise current rules to reflect changes in agricultural production and technology,” says Bill Field, Purdue University Extension safety specialist. “We’ve been recommending it for a long time. But these rules were not well-vetted by farm groups. They went too far.”

Child safety and labor advocates argued that the revisions were necessary to protect vulnerable youth. “There was no dialogue about the real issues or the individual merits of the proposed rules,” Miller says. “Misinformation was perpetuated during this process.”

Build on Current Education Efforts

For decades, 4-H and Extension and FFA provided training for youth at least 14 years of age to obtain certification to operate tractors. Because of federal and state funding cutbacks, these programs have dwindled, leaving an increasing number of eligible youth lacking access. In 2000, USDA/CSREES established the Hazardous Occupations Safety Training in Agriculture Program (HOSTA) to support development of new training resources and delivery strategies, including web-based instruction, to ensure broader access to training. Purdue University and Pennsylvania State University have taken the lead in this effort.

Many Extension safety specialists criticized the proposal to significantly expand the number of hours for tractor-safety certification. “The current rule calls for 20 hours, and this would have been increased to 90 hours,” Field says. “ It wasn’t realistic. Little to no effort was made to discuss these revisions in training and education with the current providers, including 4-H, FFA, or Extension.”

Miller says the expanded hours were an effort to make training comparable to training required for 16 and 17-year-olds hired for nonfarm jobs. “The current certification program could have been incorporated into it,” she says. “After public comments, the process would have included dialogue and discussion of strategies with stakeholders. But people did not give it a chance. This issue won’t go away entirely. But it was the best opportunity in my lifetime.”

Although the proposed rules were perceived as overreaching, there’s no dispute that youth ages 14-16 who are hired to perform farm work lack comparable protections provided to youth employed in non-farm jobs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that ag workers ages 15 to 17 have a 4.4 times greater than average risk of dying, compared to other 15-to 17-year-old workers.

“A number of opponents do not seem to know what is age appropriate or safe work for hired children to do,” Miller says. “The children of the farm owners would not have been affected. But somehow this concern dominated the entire conversation.”

Legislators scheduled Congressional subcommittee hearings on the issue, citing worst case scenarios. In Tennessee, the House passed a bill stating that it would not enforce the proposed federal rules.

Most of the opposition focused on the importance of kids learning a work ethic and acquiring skills, a perceived threat to a future generation of farmers. Farmers were quoted saying that they were in the best position to determine what types of farm activities are safe for youth.

Now that the rules have been withdrawn, it appears that it is up to farmers and farm organizations to walk the talk. The administration also has pledged to work with farm organizations to develop farm safety programs for 14 and 15-year-olds hired to work on farms.

“First, we need to see how big the problem is,” Field says. “What are the unsafe practices, and how can we reduce these? Then we need to work at enhanced training and certification, and look at alternatives avenues to providing it to these youth.”

But the incentive to move forward has been reduced. “The withdrawal of the proposal limits the opportunity for further discussion,” Miller says.

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