For use in local newspapers the week of May 7, 2012:
Last week the U.S. Department of Labor withdrew proposed changes to federal law that would have eliminated the majority of agricultural child labor exemptions that permit teenagers to work in agriculture.
The Labor Department also said the Obama administration would not seek any further changes to the law for the foreseeable future. The move is a victory for farm organizations that took issued with the proposed changes.
“The most important aspect of this decision is that the Department of Labor now will seek guidance from the American Farm Bureau, 4-H and other farm-related organizations when crafting farm child labor changes,” said Ronnie Anderson, president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau. “We feel such organizations have a better understanding of what children actually do on the farm and we’re ready to add our support to the debate.”
Earlier this year the Labor Department proposed changes in federal labor requirements that would have prohibited children under the age of 16 from working on farms, even those owned by their parents. The department cited statistics of child farm-related injuries it said justified the proposed change in the law.
There’s no question agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries. Farming is one of the few industries in which entire families, who often share the work and live on the premises, are at risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries.
But when the Department of Labor pressed the Obama administration to make it illegal for adolescents and teens to perform certain tasks on the farm, it raised the ire of many in the farm community who said the department was overstepping its bounds by assuming some parents would knowingly put their children in danger.
Farm children are used to hard work. Just ask them. There’s not a farmer or rancher around these days who won’t tell you their parents didn’t instill a healthy dose of learning by doing when they were growing up.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 million children and adolescents under 20 years of age resided on farms in 2009, with about 519,000 of these young people performing work on farms. In its 2009 report, the CDC determined that on average, 113 youth under the age of 20 die each year from farm-related injuries.
There’s no way to minimize the significance of these 113 deaths. During that same year an estimated 16,100 children and teens were injured in farm-related accidents, a rate of about 3,400 a week during an average year. And while the injuries ranged from minor to life threatening, it’s a constant reminder that all children are prone to accidents, no matter where they live or what they do.
In 2009 the CDC also released a report on the number of teen deaths related to car accidents across the U.S. That same year about 3,000 teens aged 15 to 19 were killed and more than 350,000 were treated in emergency rooms for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes.
According to the CDC, young people ages 15-24 represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population. However, they account for 30 percent, or $19 billion, of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males, and 28 percent, or $7 billion, of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among females.
But the issue of child safety on the farm is not a new phenomenon. In 1990 Congress directed the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the CDC, to develop an extensive agricultural safety and health program to address the high risks of injuries and illnesses experienced by workers and families in agriculture.
NIOSH funded research and prevention programs at university centers in 20 states. These programs conducted research on injuries associated with different farm operations, as well as pesticide exposure, pulmonary disease, musculoskeletal disorders, hearing loss and stress.
In its 1993 report to Congress NIOSH provided an extensive list of safety guidelines, which over the years has been supplemented with new data. It’s from these recommendations that farm safety directors and others have crafted and presented programs that help farmers and ranchers keep their children safe on the farm.
No farm parent I’ve ever spoken with ever even joked about their children working in unsafe conditions. Would you knowingly put your child in danger with a task that even you felt was risky? Farmers are no different. Just because it’s farm work, there’s no life lesson worth teaching that could end your child’s life.
There’s nothing wrong with government keeping a watchful eye on unsafe working conditions and practices. But to severely limit what children can and can’t do around the farm is moving beyond what parents and farm safety experts already know. No environment, no activity on earth is 100 percent safe. Properly training children to work around the farm, something all farmers and ranchers do, will do more to curb the risks of accidents on farms than any piece of legislation coming from Washington.