Tighter Child-Labor Rules on Farms Proposed

By SCOTT KILMAN [from The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 32, 2011]

The U.S. Labor Department proposed Wednesday to increase for the first time in four decades its list of jobs too hazardous for hired hands age 15 and younger to do on the farm, long one of the most dangerous places in America for children to work.

Under the proposed changes, laborers who are hired to do such things as drive most tractors or work in tobacco fields would have to be at least 16 years old. Workers who toil in tobacco fields can be exposed to unsafe levels of nicotine, a problem called green-tobacco sickness.

The Labor Department has wrestled for nearly a decade with whether to tighten its safety rules for children working in agriculture, in part because the issue is a political minefield.

Agricultural interest groups don’t want federal regulators to make it any harder for them to recruit and train the next generation of farmers. But child-safety advocates want Washington to get tougher than current labor law, which allows 16-year-olds to perform jobs on the farm that regulators deem too hazardous for them to do off the farm at that age, such as handling dynamite, chainsaws and pesticides.

Although the childhood injury rate on farms fell 59% from 1998 to 2009, according to the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., agriculture still has the second-highest fatality rate among youth workers, and a fatality rate that is nearly six times the average across all industries.

The children of farmers working for their parents are exempt from the Labor Department regulations. They can do any kind of farm work under the theory that their parents are naturally inclined to look out for them.

Separately, the Labor Department said Wednesday that it wants to ban anyone under the age of 18 from working at a commercial feed lot, where livestock are fattened on grain, or an off-farm grain storage elevator. According to Purdue University, 26 people died in U.S. grain-elevator accidents in 2010. Six of the fatalities involved children under the age of 16.

According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, there were 1.2 million hired workers on U.S. farms and ranches in July. However, the USDA doesn’t break down farm labor by age.

The Labor Department is collecting public comments on the proposed changes until Nov. 1.

Write to Scott Kilman at scott.kilman@wsj.com

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