Farming is a dangerous business, regardless of age. But do we need a government agency telling us at what age our sons and daughters can perform certain duties on the farm?
That question is at the heart of a debate raging across farm country after the Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a new list of activities, like driving a tractor and climbing a ladder, that could be prohibited for certain age groups in the future.
Although children working for their parents on their own farm would be exempt from the new rules, they would not be able to work on neighboring farms or, in some cases, participate in FFA activities. Failure to comply to could result in stiff fines.
For some farmers, the proposed rule is viewed as yet another government intrusion into an area where they don't belong. Yet, others argue that, if even one more child's life is saved as a result, the agency is doing its job by updating rules that were last revised in 1970.
"Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis when the new regulations were first proposed this fall. "Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."
The proposed changes are based on the enforcement experiences of its Wage and Hour Division (WHD), recommendations made by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and what the DOL says is a commitment to bring parity between the rules for young workers employed in agricultural jobs and the more stringent rules that apply to those employed in nonagricultural workplaces.
The Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that the fatality rate for agricultural workers who are 15 to 17 years of age is 4.4 times greater than the risk for the average worker in that age range. The most common cause of agricultural deaths among young workers is farm machinery, with tractors involved in over half of the fatalities. For example, last year the WHD investigated the death of an 8-year-old who was killed when he was pulled into a potato conveyor.
Young farm workers also experience a high incidence of injuries and those injuries tend to be more severe than those suffered by nonagricultural workers. The DOL cited a 2009 accident where an 11-year-old boy's leg was severed 6 below the knee while he was sweeping grain to a central location inside a silo.
The DOL originally requested public comment by Nov. 1, but there has been so much controversy over the proposed rule that Senators Jerry Moran, R-Kans, and Ben Nelson, D-Neb, generated a letter to the agency requesting more time. Another 32 Senators signed on and the agency relented last week, granting an additional 30 days.
The proposed regulations make a number of substantial changes, including:
·Significantly limit contact with tractors of any size for hired youth below the age of 16;
·Expand existing restrictions to prohibit most, if not all, operation of power-driven machinery by hired youth under age 16. A similar prohibition has existed as part of the nonagricultural child labor provisions for more than 50 years. A limited exemption would permit some student learners to operate certain farm implements and tractors, when equipped with proper rollover protection structures and seat belts, under specified conditions.
·Prohibit most herding activities and involvement with activities that might inflict pain on animals by hired youth; The rule holds youth under 16 years old "lack the cognitive ability" to herd animals on horseback, specifically outlining no cutting or separating cattle. Further, the proposed rule would prohibit youth from "engaging, or assisting, in animal husbandry practices." These activities outlined include branding, breeding, dehorning, vaccinating, castrating, and treating sick or injured animals.
·Prohibit hired youth from working at a height greater than 6 feet above another elevation (implicating activities such as fruit harvest, stacking hay, etc.);
·Prohibit hired youth under 16 from working inside a fruit, forage, or grain storage container or inside a manure pit;
·Prohibit farm workers under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco; and,
·Prohibit hired youth in both agricultural and non-agricultural employment from using electronic (including communication) devices while operating power-driven equipment.
Also, the DOL is proposing a new non-agricultural hazardous occupations order that would prevent children under 18 from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of agricultural raw materials. Prohibited places of employment would include grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.
In addition, the DOL is also soliciting comments on the potential need to limit hired youths' exposure to extreme temperatures. As one source noted, that probably eliminates work altogether in North Dakota!
The period for submitting public comment on the notice of proposed rulemaking has been extended through Dec. 1. To view the proposed rule and submit comments, visit the federal e-rulemaking portal at http://www.regulations.gov and search by regulation identification number 1235-AA06.