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Farm Accidents Highlight Need for Proposed Changes to Child Labor Law

October 5, 2011 Published in Articles

Two recent farm accidents involving teen farm workers reveal the urgent need for child labor law reform in the agricultural industry. The Department of Labor undertook revising its laws last year, but only opened discussion on the proposed changes on September 2nd of this year. Some child rights advocates believe that the White House dragged its feet on the revisions, and that the recent farm accidents that claimed the lives of two teenagers could have been prevented had the laws passed in a timely fashion.

Earlier this summer in a farm accident in Illinois, two 14-year-old girls were electrocuted and killed when they ran into an irrigation rig while detasseling corn. The farm on which the girls were working is owned by agribusiness giant Monsanto, against whom one of the girl’s fathers has filed a lawsuit.

Then, this August in Oklahoma, two 17-year-old boys were severely injured when they were pulled into a grain auger, a farm tool that has a metal tube with a large spiral of steel running through it, used to carry grain from the ground into a grain silo. When the emergency responders arrived, they had to cut through the auger to get to the boys.

Both of these accidents highlight the growing need for child labor reforms in the agricultural industry. The nation’s child labor laws have remained unchanged for 40 years, but last year, the Department of Labor issued proposed changes to the agricultural industry laws.

The changes were submitted to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget shortly after their composition, but the White House then dragged its feet on the issue until this September. Typically, proposals of this nature are reviewed within 90 days. The White House recently completed its review, and the public hearing on the proposed changes will be open until November 1st.

The Need for Changes to Current Child Labor Laws

The changes are based on several federal agency reports on agricultural safety and teenage workers. The reports found that 15.1 percent of the 1.01 million hired farm workers in 2008 were between the ages of 15 and 21, and 14,000 kids under 14 were hired as farm workers.

The same study found that 41,000 kids 14 to 15 years old were hired by a farm operator, and over 7,500 of them had operated a tractor as part of their job, which is illegal under current law. Agriculture is one of the nation’s most dangerous jobs sectors, and adolescent workers who are less experienced, less trained and sometimes not physically large enough to operate machinery are especially at risk for tractor accidents and other types of heavy machinery accidents.

The new changes would prohibit the hiring of 16 to 17 year olds for some of the most dangerous agricultural work: those jobs in the farm raw material wholesale industry, which include grain elevators, feed lots, and animal auctions. Reports found that teenagers often performed dangerous jobs in these areas, including working on roofs, operating heavy machinery, and operating automobiles, all violations of current child labor laws. The changes would also ban the use of electronic devices while operating power equipment.

The changes do not affect family-owned farms on which parents employ their own children, but rather targets larger agricultural companies that hire teenagers as farm workers. The law assumes that parents will act in their child’s best interest; it cannot assume the same for agribusiness.

Hopefully, the new changes will help keep America’s kids safer while on the job and ban companies from hiring them for dangerous farm duties.