by Katie Micik, DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) — Agriculture is the nation’s most dangerous industry, particularly for children, and the Department of Labor has issued a set of proposed regulations intended to bring child labor laws for farm workers closer in line with that of other industries.
Teens between 15 and 17 who work agricultural jobs are 4.4 times more likely than their peers to suffer a fatal accident and more likely to suffer a life-altering injury, according to the Labor Department. While they are meant to protect young workers from hazardous employment, the new rules sparked an outcry from seed companies and detasseling contractors who say the rules would decimate their labor supply and cause confusion among farmers about when the law would apply.
The proposed rules would raise the minimum age of employment to 16 on farms and 18 for facilities that handle raw commodities, such as grain elevators or work inside grain bins. They also limit who can handle pesticides, operate heavy machinery and work with animals. The rules also prohibit teens from using electronic devices like cell phones while working.
The proposed rules garnered more than 6,300 comments after the government extended the commentary period, which ends on Thursday. From there, the agency will review comments and hopefully alter the rules to address agriculture’s concerns.
“A lot of the controversy is coming because of some of the things in there that could impact family farms,” said Shari Burgus, the education director for Farm Safety 4 Just Kids. The law has a family farm exemption that allows children of any age to work on their parents’ operation.
“They start to define who will it affect and who it will not, and that’s where the gray areas come in,” Burgus said. “Let’s say a child works on grandpa and grandma’s farm or their aunt and uncle’s farm. The way it’s written right now, the family exemption would only be met if your mom or dad own the farm where you are working.”
Also unclear in the regulations is whether a farm organized as a corporation still qualifies for the family farm exemption. North Dakota Farmers Union is among the groups looking for more clarity on youth employment on farms that are run as corporations or partnerships among relatives.
“It is our belief that extended family members provide the same protections and take the same precautions as a parent would for young relatives working on the farm, and that these temporary arrangements should fall under the parental exemption for a person standing in place of a parent,” said NDFU President Elwood “Woody” Barth in a press release.
The revisions to the Fair Labor Standards Act for agricultural employment are the first since the agriculture exemption was created in 1970. The department says the changes are intended to equalize the disparity between on-farm and off-farm employment. For example, a worker must be 18 to operate a forklift on a construction site, but there was no age limit under the old rule to operate a similar piece of farm equipment.
Yet the agency’s timing coincides with several tragedies involving teens. On July 25 of this year, two 14-year-old girls were electrocuted by a center pivot irrigation system while detasseling corn in Whiteside County, Ill. And in March, a 14- and a 19-year-old suffocated in a grain bin accident in Mount Carroll, Ill.
Burgus said the changes have been floated in D.C. for years but nobody’s acted on them until now.
“I don’t think it’s a direct reaction to what transpired [in Whiteside County] and what’s happened in several different cases, but it has brought things to the awareness of people simply because those were in the news and a lot of people were talking about them,” she said.
DETASSELING HARDEST HIT
The new rules could end a rite of passage for many rural teens: countless sweaty hours detasseling seed corn. Jeff Hartz, the marketing director for Wyffels Hybrids, said the change would be dramatic. The Geneseo, Ill.-based company often contracts 100 workers to detassel its research plots each year.
“I’d venture to say close to half of them are 13 to 15. The industry at large is probably going to be operating under that exact same scenario if not at a higher percentage,” he said. Those kids will be hard to replace with other teenagers, he said, because once they turn 16, kids prefer jobs that last all summer, not just the few weeks that corn pollinates.
Hartz said the industry trains its crew leaders to identify early signs of heat exhaustion and other signs of problems. Accidents while detasseling are rare, particularly when taking into account the scope of production. He offered Whiteside County, a hotbed of seed corn production, as an example.
“In the middle of summer during pollination you can go out there and find maybe a thousand kids in four or five miles. The amount of logistics that need to go into pulling something like that off and having no issues, I think part of that bears out how much consciousness there is around ensuring we do things the right way and kids are safe.”
Burgus said part of the reason for the heated debate is “a lot of kids have been doing these things for a very long time. There are some people that feel the government is stepping into a role that they themselves should be handling.”
Yet Hartz said that if the ultimate outcome of the new rules improves the safety of children working on the farm, he supports it. It’s not something he really thinks needs a law, “but if it does help seal up some cracks that are in the system” it is for the greater good.
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Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp