The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Labor Department testifies for child farm worker rules; witnesses say more safety regs not needed

Nancy Leppink
Nancy Leppink
Nancy Leppink, deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, told the House Small Business Agriculture, Energy and Trade Subcommittee that between 2003 and 2010, there were 130 children 15 years of age and younger who died while working, and that 73 percent of these children were employed in agriculture.

The most common cause of agricultural deaths, Leppink said, was operation of farm machinery, with tractors involved in about a third of the fatalities.

She also noted that in the past two years, three young workers employed at grain storage facilities were killed, two youth each lost a leg to a power-driven auger while working in a grain elevator, and a 14-year-old girl was seriously injured when she was stampeded at a livestock auction.

“Many tragic and unnecessary accidents involving children employed in agriculture never make the national news, but result in significant harm to the lives of those children and their families,“ Leppink testified.

She also noted that it is not uncommon for Wage and Hour Division investigators to find very young children working illegally in the fields and exposed to pesticides, dangerous machinery and other hazards.

Investigators from the Phoenix office have found children as young as 10 and 11 working during the fall chili harvest, she said, while investigators from the McAllen, Texas, office found children 9, 10 and even 6 years old illegally employed to harvest onions.

Many of the provisions in the Labor Department’s proposed updating of the rule regarding child labor on farms. Those prohibiting farm employees 15 or younger from operating tractors or having certain interactions with animals would apply only to children who do not qualify under the parental exemption.

“These expanding protections have always allowed for the children of farmers to be employed on their parent’s farm without restriction,” Leppink said.

Of the application of the rules to nonfamily members, she noted, “The agricultural provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act only apply to youth under the age of 16. Once a child reaches 16, he or she may be employed in agriculture to do any work at any time.”

The proposed regulation would, however, prohibit children under 18 from working in establishments such as grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, feed yards, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions. At present children age 16 and over can work in these establishments.

The rule would also prohibit child employees from using electronic devices, including cell phones, while operating power-driven equipment, including motor vehicles and tractors, although it would allow the use of two-way radios and navigational devices.

A representative of FFA (the new name for Future Farmers of America) testified today that he hoped the new regulations would not interfere with the organiztion’s program to provide youth a “supervised agricultural experience” that includes safety training.

Leppink testified that it would not.

“The proposed rule would not eliminate safety programs that are provided by organizations such as 4-H and the FFA,” she said. “Nor would the regulation apply to situations where a child is raising a pig as part of her 4-H project, or taking the pig she has raised to sell at a county fair or market on her own behalf.”

Leppink also said a child of any age could assistant a neighbor to round up loose cattle, because that would not establish an employer/employee relationship and could also help a neighbor with nonhazardous chores such as hand harvesting crops.

Robert Barr, deputy agriculture commissioner in West Virginia, testified that proposals such as prohibiting children from working on ladders higher than six feet or with animals over six months of age or in high temperatures would mean that teenagers could not participate in many activities.

Barr also testified that only allowing children of farm owners and operators to work on farms will eliminate opportunities for children who are not “born to farm parents.”

Chris Chinn, a hog farmer from Missouri, testified that school sports activities are much more dangerous than working on the farm. Chinn said her daughters have been taken to the emergency room for school-related injuries but never for any farm injury. She also said grandparents should be allowed to supervise their grandchildren on the farm because they are even stricter than parents in what they will allow children to do.

“The feeling in the agriculture community is that the whole proposal is fundamentally flawed,” Chinn said.

The proposed changes were based on recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control.

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety supports the changes, which would apply to hired youth under 16 and would focus on jobs that research has shown to cause the most injuries and fatalities, such as tractor operation and certain types of work with animals.

The center, part of the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Marshfield, Wis., issued a statement on the proposed rule in December.

“Working in agriculture is beneficial to youth on many levels,” said Barbara Lee, director of the National Children’s Center and National Farm Medicine Center.

“The National Children’s Center has long focused on promoting meaningful work experience for young people with less risk of farm related disease or injury,” she said. “The center led development of two sets of landmark guidelines in consultation with agricultural employers and farm parents, as well as with safety and health specialists.”