August 8, 2011 Elizabeth Grossman 4Comment

By Elizabeth Grossman

While the rest of the country has been experiencing an epic heat wave, in the Pacific Northwest where I live, thus far the summer has been unusually cool. One consequence of the cool weather is a slow-to-appear local tomato crop, made evident to consumers by some remarkably high prices. A pint of organic cherry tomatoes at my neighborhood market recently jumped more than a dollar within a week to $4.99, prompting me to wonder precisely what goes into the price of tomatoes.

Regional growers, distributors, and retailers all told me that prices are typically determined by a combination of weather, what growers call inputs – what physically goes into producing a crop – real estate and labor costs. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture labor costs make up between 17 and 40 percent of these overall farm expenses. But this also got me thinking more broadly about farm work and its human costs, costs that are far from evident in the glistening piles of yellows, greens, reds, and purples of summer fruits and vegetables. These costs became all too evident two weeks ago, when two children were killed while doing agricultural work.

What many people choosing produce at a local market may not realize is that farm work is considered to be the most hazardous occupation in the U.S. In 2009, fatal accident rates on farms were 28.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. Chemicals and pesticides, heat, cold, dust, electricity, machinery, tools, grain bins, manure pits, and toxic gasses are among the farm work hazards listed by OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration), which notes that whole families may be exposed to these hazards.

Farm work is particularly dangerous for young people. According to OSHA, more than 2 million Americans under the age of 20 are exposed to farm-related safety hazards each year. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) data show that these hazards result in thousands of injuries per year. While the number of reported injuries to young farm workers has been declining – down from 37, 774 in 1998 – 15,012 children under 16 were injured on farms in 2009. (It’s worth noting, however, that during that time, the number of children living on farms also declined.) Most of these injuries involved children living on or visiting farms, but in 2006 (the most recent figures readily available) 3,601 of a total 22,900 such injuries occurred to young people performing farm work. That year in addition to farm family children (largely age 10 to 15) who worked on the farm an additional 307,000 young people were hired to do agricultural work.

The hazards of farm work are underscored by the fatality rate for young people working on farms: 21.6 deaths per 100,000 young workers, compared to 3.6 fatalities for the same number of those working in all other industries, this according to data published in 2010.

Electrocution deaths on an Illinois farm
One such tragedy occurred just two weeks ago. On Monday July 25, two 14-year old girls, Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall, both from Sterling, Illinois, were electrocuted and killed while detasselling corn on a farm about 115 miles west of Chicago. Two other girls, Delanie Knapp, 14, and her 15-year old sister, Bailey, were also injured by electrical shocks and hospitalized. A number of others working at the time are reported also to have received medical treatment. According to a Chicago Tribune report, the girls were among the dozens of teen-agers working that field, all employed by a contractor – reported to be R&J Enterprises of Illinois, hired by the Monsanto corporation. The incident is being investigated by OSHA and local authorities; the farm owners have said a lightning strike to an irrigation system on rain-soaked ground may have caused the shocks. But a wrongful death lawsuit filed August 4th by Hannah Kendall’s father questions this explanation.

Before resuming detasseling on July 27, which the company stopped after the accident on the 25th, Monsanto, who commissioned the work of the 72 teens at the Tampico, Illinois farm where the accident occurred, “implemented additional steps to make sure the risk of electrical shock will be minimized,” including requiring the grower/landlord to “de-energize irrigation electrical system” before work crews go out in a field. Monsanto, wrote company corporate affairs director, Tom Helscher, has “approximately 150 seed production fields and about 1000 workers are employed to detassel corn at these production sites” in the north central Illinois area where the accident occurred. It’s standard practice, wrote Helscher, for Monsanto “to contract with landlords/growers for seed production and to contract with labor providers who employ the detasseling crews.”

“Detasseling,” Helscher explained, “is an important step in producing hybrid corn seed. It is a task done by hand for 3 to 5 weeks in the summer and has been done for decades.” And it’s work that’s typically been done by young people.

According to Monsanto, the company provides safety training and personal protective equipment for these work crews as well as initial training for contract labor providers and contract laborers. Training is on-going through out the season and Monsanto audits its contractors’ safety compliance and performance at least once a week, wrote Helscher. Out in the field, the contractor – who’s received training from Monsanto – provides direct supervision. Monsanto also says it provides “the parents of detasselers with information as to the nature of the work and have Registered Nurses at all of our US corn production sites to better insure the workers’ health and safety.”

According to OSHA, which is now investigating the incident, electrocutions kill 62 agricultural workers each year in the U.S. and cause 3.6 percent of the deaths among farm workers under age 20. The most common cause of such incidents is use of agricultural equipment that come into contact with overhead power lines, and irrigation equipment is well known as a potential component of electrocution hazards.

Six year-old berry picker
Another recent snapshot of children’s work on farms comes from Washington state. On August 4, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division announced it has fined three berry farms in southwest Washington – Columbia Fruit LLC of Woodland, WA, George Hoffman Farms, and Berry Good Farm of Ridgefield, WA – a total of $73,050 for violating provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), including employing children as young as six years old as farm laborers. According to the Department of Labor, “due to the severity of the child labor violations, the agency invoked the “hot goods” provision of the FLSA, which precludes the farmers from shipping the strawberries that were produced in violation of the child labor laws.” Two 11 year-olds, one 10 year-old, three 9 year-olds, one 8 year-old, one 7 year-old and one 6 year-old were found working on these farms, according to the Department of Labor, Wage Hour Division district office in Portland, Oregon.

The employers have now taken these children off the job and signed agreements permanently “enjoining them from violating the FLSA in the future.” They will also attend Department of Labor (DOL) training for the next three years. The FLSA allows, with restrictions for hazardous work, farm work by children ages 12 to 16, but according to the DOL, “Youths of any age may work at any time and perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents. Otherwise, most individuals under 12 may not be employed in farm activities.” But federal law does allow children as young as 10 and 11 to do certain kinds of non-hazardous work, including hand-harvest of seasonal crops outside of school hours.

The investigations that resulted in the Washington state fines were part of a targeted enforcement program that’s focusing on regional berry farms, said Department of Labor spokesman Michael Shimizu.

When considering the human costs of farm work, it’s important to remember that agricultural workers are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or the National Labor Relations Act (the U.S. federal laws that set wage and workday standards) in exactly the same way as other U.S. workers. While numerous FLSA provisions do apply and some states – among them California, Oregon, and Washington – have set minimum wages and work condition requirements, in many others, farm workers are exempt from minimum wage and hour, overtime, and meal and rest break requirements mandatory for other workers. For example, in Florida, where most of the country’s tomatoes are grown, a pilot program resulting from negotiations between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (an organization representing low wage, mainly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrant agricultural workers) and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, will for the first time this winter growing season guarantee the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to workers in about 90 percent of the state’s tomato fields. This program will also for the first time guarantee these workers pay for all the hours they work – not just now much they pick. Not surprisingly, the USDA describes hired farmworkers as “one of the most economically disadvantages groups in the United States.

Five dollars does seem like a lot to pay for a pint of cherry tomatoes, but the real question is: How do we grow, harvest, and market safe and nutritious produce under healthy, safe, and fairly compensated working conditions that is sold at prices all Americans can afford? Child labor should not be part of this equation.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

4 thoughts on “Hazards of the harvest: Children in the fields

  1. The story of the girls killed while detasseling struck a nerve, because it’s what my grandma used to do for some extra spending money in the summer. Detasseling has been an important job for a long time in corn production; in fact, my grandmother remembers doing it for some extra cash (and to help give her that all-important tan) during the summers when she was a teenager. It wasn’t a very fun job, but it was what the town kids did if they didn’t already have a summer job. This would’ve been around 1940. It’s likely they didn’t have as much electrocution risk in those days; many farms still didn’t have electricity at all, and would have been running irrigation equipment via wind, water pressure, and gravity. However, she’s paying for it now; those lovely tans she was aiming for have now resulted in melanomas that keep popping up and needing removal.

    I had the opportunity to chat with a rural medevac team once. They recounted a few “war stories”. All of them related to farm accidents, and a number of them had been fatal, including one involving a teenaged boy who had been actually cut in half by a combine harvester. Accidents happen, and with machinery that big, accidents can happen very quickly. The fact that many of these accidents involve children is tragic, but it goes back a long ways. If you grow up on a farm, you’re expected to help out. otherwise, your parents will need to hire more help, and that costs money. And if the weather has been bad this year, money could be difficult to come by.

  2. From what the wrongful death article says, the lightning happened days before. This is pure negligence on the part of the owners/operators of the farm. There is no excuse for letting something like this happen. This was 100% preventable. The appropriate way to deal with this is to bankrupt the farm owners/operators so they can’t do this again.

  3. For the details on the Department of Labor’s laws on youth employment in agriculture see this fact sheet from the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division: (It’s also available in Spanish.)

    It clarifies that young people age 16 and up may work at any farm job at any time, and that children under 12 can only work, with parental consent, at non-hazardous jobs outside of school hours but only on farms that are not subject to the minimum wage requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (details available through the Wage and Hour Division). However, it also notes that “Local youths 10 and 11 can hand harvest short-season crops outside school hours for no more than 8 weeks between June 1 and October 15 if their employers have obtained special waivers from the Secretary of Labor,” and that “Youths of any age may work at any time in any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents.”

  4. I did seasonal agricultural work – bulbs, spinach, and berries – in Washington state from age 10-15 (the late 1980s). The agricultural work was physically demanding, uncomfortable, and hazardous; the piece-work pay, terrible. I experienced dermatitis, sun burn, heat exposure, nearby areal spraying, riding in the back of work trucks…. I loved the independence that going to work and having my own money gave me; and I reflect that the work was important to my personal and political development. Every other year I have my skin checked for cancers.

    When I see workers in the those same fields now, the work is more automated, and there are hand-washing stations. Sometimes, shade is provided. The work remains difficult and hazardous.

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