For U.S. workers, the risk of dying on the job is highest if you are employed in agricultural, fishing or hunting. These jobs are not just a little riskier than the average job, they are nearly 8 times more life-threatening. The fatality rate for all private sector workers is 3.5 per 100,000 workers; in agriculture, fishing and hunting, the rate is 26.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. Combine these statistics with age-specific fatality rates and it was time for the US Department of Labor (DOL) to review the adequacy of its safety regulations for children working in farming jobs. The rules currently enforce by DOL date back to 1970.
In September, DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (the agency responsible for enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA)) issued a proposal to change some of its existing safety regulations for youth under age 16, who are in an employee/employer relationship working in agricultural jobs. Typically these young workers are 13-15 year olds, but youngsters aged 12 and even younger are known to have paid agricultural jobs. (The FSLA does not cover workers aged 16 years or older in agricultural jobs, so DOL’s proposal doesn’t address those workers.)
For those of us who have studied children’s environmental health, we know that children are NOT just little adults. Physiologically, psychosocially, and all other ways, individuals are not fully mature until they reach their early 20’s—and some take longer than others. That’s the exact reason why special protections and precautions are needed, especially for those in their teens.
To date, the agency has received comments from more than 2,200 individuals and organizations, many of which voice strong opposition to the proposed safety improvements. Trouble is, most of them express general disdain for the changes, but offer no concrete evidence challenging the injury- and fatality-risk data presented by DOL. I’ve been reading these comments and a couple of themes are emerging:
Opponents’ Assertion #1: These changes are duplicative and redundant. There are already protections for workers on farms.
It’s easy to label something as redundant, but it’s another thing to offer some proof. Policymakers should expect those making the claim that this proposal is duplicative to back it up with evidence. DOL’s proposal would, for example, prohibit farm workers under age 16 from working inside a manure pit—an oxygen-deficient, toxic environment. I’ve yet to read a comment that lists the alternative law that protects young workers from this deadly hazard (or, for that matter, the multitude of other hazards addressed by the proposal.) If these laws exist, I’m sure DOL would like to hear about them during this comment period.
Opponents’ Assertion #2: These changes will ban children from working side-by-side with their parents on the family’s farm.
The FLSA provides an exemption from the law’s child labor provisions for youngsters working on farms owned or operated by their parents. This parental exemption also applies to individuals “standing in the place” of a parent. The exemption has been on the books for four decades, and DOL’s proposed rule does not amend it in any way.
I learned something particularly intriguing, however, as I read up on the parental exemption. It’s an anomaly that only exists in the agricultural industry. Under existing DOL child labor rules for non-agricultural jobs, workers under 18 years of age are prohibited, for example, from operating a forklift. A 16 year old worker can’t drive a forklift on-the-job whether he works at Lowe’s, K-Mart, or the carpet store owned by his family. Until he’s 18, operating a forklift is off limits. For a youngster working in agriculture, it’s a different, more dangerous story. A young agricultural worker—one who’s 14, 12, 10 whatever—is allowed to operate a tractor if the farm is owned or operated by a parent. Forklifts and tractors are equally dangerous and require maturity, skill, training and experience to operate safely. Unequal protection for young farm workers makes no public health sense.
It’s actually puzzling to read the comments submitted to DOL that insist that children working in agricultural jobs are special, and thus deserving of LESS protection than other young workers. These commenters suggest, in a twisted way, that putting farm-working children in harm’s way for a paycheck is necessary to foster their interest in agricultural jobs. Outside of agriculture, that would be like saying a 16 year old won’t be interested in carrying on his dad’s and older brothers’ construction business because the current DOL child labor rules prohibit him from working on a roof until he’s 18 years old. As if there aren’t dozens of other construction skills he could practice before he turns 18 besides working on a roof.
Opponents’ Assertion #3: These changes fail to understand the unique ownership arrangements on U.S. farms. It will “undermine the traditional extended family by limiting the ability of grandchildren, nieces and nephews to learn the family business.”
Given the myriad of tasks and responsibilities on a farm, I find it hard to believe that limiting certain highly dangerous tasks for those under age 16, such as working in a grain silo or using a hoisting apparatus and conveyors, would blow their chance at learning the family business. If it truly is a “family farm,” which connates an extended family with nieces, nephews, cousins and grandchildren, certainly there are other individuals (or even a non-family member) over the age of 15 to perform the most hazardous tasks.
Opponents’ Assertion #4: “This proposed rule will not allow children to work with their 4-H fair animals to show at their county fair.”
4-H is the largest, nationwide youth development program in the U.S. that offers children age 5-19 opportunities to join clubs and special-interest groups, provide community service, and more. With roots dating back to the early 1920’s and connections with the US Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service, many 4-H clubs have been involved historically in agriculture-related topics, but it’s left to each club to decide how they want to spend their time. 4-H clubs in Kansas, for example, have a variety of specialty topics, from camping and geology, to dairy farming and photography.
Children involved in 4-H are members of the club, they are not employees, and the FLSA only applies if there is an employer/employee relationship. As a result, activities that children engage in as 4-H members are not subject to the FLSA, unless paid employment is involved. There may be circumstances, therefore, where youth under age 16 are prohibited from doing a certain task (e.g., in a stall with a sow with suckling piglets) when s/he at work, but could do that same task when s/he is off-the-clock as a 4-H member or in some other capacity. The proposal does not prohibit children from their 4-H activities, even those that would off-limits for them as an employee.
Here’s an analogy: A 15 year old boy is prohibited under current DOL rules from using an electric meat slicer at work, such as at a local sandwich shop or grocery store. At home it’s a different story. The 15 year old’s mom has an electric meat slicer. He uses it on Sundays when the family gets together to prepare a week’s worth of sandwiches for school lunchboxes. (As the saying goes, what you do on your own time is your own business.)
Opponents’ Assertion #5: The proposed changes in the student-learner exemptions will reduce on-farm learning opportunities and decrease interest in agricultural careers among our youth.
Under current DOL’s farm workers under age 16 can receive a special type of supervised training and receive a designation as a “student-learner.” The youngsters receive this special training when they are enrolled in an ongoing vocational education program in agriculture. With a student-learner permit, these workers under age 16 are allowed to perform some of the hazardous tasks that would otherwise be off limits. For example, operating a tractor of over 20 power take-off (PTO) horsepower is prohibited under the current DOL rules for anyone under age 16, except for young workers with the “student-learner” permit. Fatalities involving tractors are, afterall, the leading cause of death among worker in agricultural, hunting and fishing jobs. It seems reasonable that workers under age 16 should receive some specialized training and supervision when operating a tractor.
The modification being proposed by DOL involves workers under age 16 who have been able to use the “student-learner” exemption to operate a tractor based on their completion of a one-time, 10-hour course. DOL is proposing to eliminate this method to receive the “student-learner” permit. Most often these one-time certification courses have been offered through 4-H programs and State agricultural extension systems. The Labor Department offers several reasons they are proposing to eliminate this option, including studies that question the certificate programs’ effectiveness (here, here), and the fact that States’ graduated motor vehicle drivers’ license programs are now requiring 40, 50, 60 or more hours of supervised driving. We know it’s not safe to let your average 16 year old just take a 10-hour course and pass a written test to get free reign behind the steering wheel of an automobile.
Opponents’ Assertion #6-10: The government should stay out of our lives. Farm families already train their children how to safely handle machinery and livestock. We know what is best for us, our families, friends and employees. We don’t need people who have never seen a farm, let alone worked on one, writing regulations.
In the 1960’s coal mine operators said “we don’t need government telling us how to run our coal mines.” Yet, hundreds of mine workers were dying on-the-job each year and thousands more were disabled with black lung disease. After better laws were passed, working conditions have improved substantially for miners and fatality rates have declined. Likewise, some people didn’t like laws that required seatbelts and child safety seats. They said “I know what’s best for my family.” Yet the automobile death statistics said otherwise, and government regulations have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
I appreciate that many of the commenters who oppose the proposed safety improvements for young farm workers believe their farming lifestyle is unique. People who grow up in fishing towns, near steel mills, by skyscrapers, in a forest, or on a mountain village feel also think their way of life is unique. It is sometimes that exact type of insular view, however, that prevents us from recognizing the problems and failings in their own community. Scrutiny from the outside can be healthy and productive, especially when people’s lives are at stake.
For those who call farming and the agricultural industry their own, a fatality rate nearly 8 times the national average should not be a source of pride. A few modest safety protections for agricultural workers under age 16, probably less than 15,000 youngsters nationwide, should be embraced. Those of us from non-farming families want those farming kids around long past their teen years. They are the next generation of scientists, engineers, farmers, nurses, truckers, pilots or whatever they choose to be.
Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH gives special thanks Mary E. Miller, MN, RN, Clinical Faculty of the University of Washington’s School of Nursing for her assistance with this post. Mary is an expert in occupational health and safety, with special expertise in the hazards faced by young workers. She is a long-time member of the American Public Health Association, and has held many leadership positions with the Association’s Occupational Health & Safety Section.