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No middle ground on youth farm labor

CHERYL TEVIS 05/01/2012 @ 3:55pm Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

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 of Labor had withdrawn proposed child ag labor rules.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But the entire proposal was withdrawn late last week in an announcement that concluded, “Instead the Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders – such as the American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Proposed changes in the 51-page DOL document withdrawn from consideration also included: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.

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