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Labor department to take another look at ag regulations

Posted Tuesday, February 7, 2012, at 8:01 PM


Staff writer

You talked, and they listened.

Well, kind of, maybe.

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the Labor Department announced it will re-propose the portion of its regulation on child labor in agriculture interpreting the "parental exemption."

The proposed changes to the 40-year-old child labor regulations drew more than 18,000 comments, including many from farm groups and legislators. Some of the criticism focused on the parental exemption, which seems to exclude children working on any farm not owned by their parents. It excludes children working on any rented ground or working on farms operated by extended family members.

In a statement, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, said the department of labor "appreciates and respects the role of parents in raising their children and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms and of relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles in keeping grandchildren, nieces and nephews out of harm's way."

The updates are expected out later this summer and will be accompanied by a new comment period.

But, according to a press release, the department will also continue to consider feedback on the rest of the bill before it is finalized.

So we need to continue to let them know about some of the unintended consequences of the other proposed changes.

For instance, the proposal would still prohibit a farmer from hiring a neighbor boy or girl under age 16 to drive a tractor. It would still limit the opportunities young rural kids now have to detassle corn at a research facility or work at a livestock barn. Many farm jobs would be off-limits to youth under the age of 18-years-old. Some believe the way it is written would limit 4-H, FFA programs and even livestock shows.

You would think the changes are being made because of a spike in farm-related deaths, but just the opposite is true.

According to statistics, during 1982-1989, 181 youths died annually in farm accidents. But in 1990-1996 that average decreased 43 percent to 103 youth farm deaths per year. In those 15 years, there were a total of 2,174 farm deaths of children under 20 years-old. In comparison, nationally each year an average of 16,375 teenagers ages 12-19 years die, a majority from car accidents.

Of course, one death is too many, but it doesn't look like the proposed changes will do much to change the statistics. In fact, more than one-third of the farm deaths were actually to children above 15 years-old, not below. That tells me farm parents are already keeping young children away from dangerous work.

I also have to question some of the deaths that are categorized as farm-related.

Machinery accidents accounted for 773 deaths, while drowning and firearms accounted for 822 deaths. My children have never had to swim a pond, or shoot a gun to bring in the cows or cultivate a field.

Those deaths may happen on a farm, but they aren't work related. Swimming or skating in or on a pond and shooting a gun are not regulated under the proposed law.

As for the machinery deaths, the statistics don't seem to differentiate between a youth riding a 4-wheeler on a farm, or a youth riding a 4-wheeler to check the cows. From experience I can tell you, the way a youth rides for a chore and the way he joy rides with a group of friends are entirely different.

As a mother, I know living and working on a farm is dangerous. But living more than 27 years in a large farm community, I have heard of few -- if any -- accidents to children, which this new law would prevent.

On the other hand I can recall many car and firearm deaths to area youth. In fact, nationally an average of 16,375 teenagers ages 12-19 years die, a majority in car accidents.

There is no doubt, a preventable death is one too many.

Most in the farm community feel the same way. That is why farm safety is emphasized so heavily. You can't read a farm magazine without some mention of safety, especially safety of youth.

Our local Monsanto plant sponsors a yearly Farm Safety Day, which gives more than 1,000 Saline County children the opportunity to learn more about the dangers of ATVs, firearms, poisons, playing in grain bins, just to name a few of the topics.

Since 1985, tractor manufacturers have voluntarily added Roll Over Protection Guards (ROP) on all new tractors. That too, has increased safety, as has the increased use of cabbed tractors.

As a farm parent, we are more in tune with the danger than the previous generation.

My husband rode for hours with his dad on an uncabbed tractor, sitting on the fender. Most farm kids of the day did the same thing.

However, because we did know about deaths which had occurred from young children riding this way, we never let our sons ride unless the tractor had a cab. They couldn't until the day we deemed them big enough to drive the tractor (with a ROP) themselves.

Ironically, riding on a fender would still be legal under this rule. A parent using their discretion to decide when a child was ready to run a tractor (cabbed or uncabbed) would be illegal.

Of course, there are always going to be accidents, and there are always going to be a few parents who are irresponsible.

But making it a crime for rural kids to grow up working on the farm or in farm-related businesses, would harm many more than it would save.

I think the proposed rules reflect much more of a misunderstanding of rural America and rural youth, than an attempt to punish family farms.

Even if they don't understand rural life, I think most people even in Washington D.C., want to see family farms continue.

However, if passed as originally proposed, the rules would have the opposite effect. The proposed changes would be the quickest way to take the family off of the farm. Without their experience as youths, I don't think my children would be as interested in becoming the 8th generation of their family to farm.

So for us, our job is to keep telling the Department of Labor and the legislature, about our lives and our experiences.

Apparently for now, they are listening.


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