Every day about 500 agricultural workers suffer lost-time injuries, and 25 of them result in permanent impairment, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service.
Agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries, with an increased risk of both fatal and non-fatal injuries. And it's one of the most hazardous jobs for youth.
Last month the U. S. Department of Labor announced proposed rules that would help ensure the safety of youth on farms. But, the devil is in the details, as farm advocates claim the proposals are far too restrictive.
The DOL says its proposed rules would "strengthen the safety requirements for young workers employed in agriculture and related fields." The revisions, the first since 1970, would impact the Fair Labor Standards Act that currently bars young workers from certain tasks, and are intended to bring restrictions on young agricultural workers more in line with those that already exist for young people working in other industries.
The DOL published the Proposed Rules on September 2, and the comment period ends November 1.
In a prepared statement, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said, "Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."
Specifically, the new rules would prohibit farm workers under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco. And it would prohibit youth in both agricultural and non-agricultural employment from using electronic, including communication, devices while operating power-driven equipment.
There is also a new non-agricultural hazardous occupations order proposed that would prevent minors under 18 from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials. Prohibited places of employment would include country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feedlots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.
The proposal also would prohibit farm workers under 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment. A limited exemption would allow some student learners to operate certain farm implements and tractors, when equipped with proper rollover protection and seat belts, under specified conditions.
At first glance the rules seem to be an effort to reduce youth accidents. But many in agriculture say the proposed rules are another example of over-reach by the federal government.
"Here's what the government thinks is common sense," says Craig Anderson, Agriculture Labor and Safety Services division manager at the Michigan Farm Bureau. "Eliminate work to protect workers. If you don't work, you can't be hurt on the job. Who can argue with that?"
According to Anderson, who was quoted in Michigan Farm News, after examining the DOL's proposed rules he found a lot for farmers not to like.
"If you thought the new non-agriculture rules prohibiting virtually all employment of youth under 16 were overzealous, the details in this document are downright oppressive," Anderson says. "The DOL assumes that youth under age 16 lack the ‘cognitive ability" to herd animals on horseback, use battery-powered drills, put hay bales on a bale elevator or use any equipment except if powered by hand or foot."
He believes the new rules would further hurt the structure of family farms in America.
"In agriculture it is common for farms to be operated by two, three or even five generations of family members," Anderson said. "The grandparents own the land, their children are buying into the farm and may have some land on their own, and the grandchildren are working to understand what it takes to be a farmer. If the parents and grandparents operate the farm, the grandchildren under 16 would be prohibited from working on the operation."
"Don't let the spin fool you," Anderson says. "They'll say there's nothing for farm families to worry about because there is an exemption for children working on their parents' farm. The DOL proposal says it will maintain the family exemption, but later limits the exemption for any business or multi-generation farm."
Of particular interest to livestock operations are the restrictions for animal handling. The document would seem to eliminate working with 4-H and FFA animals, or proper care and well-being of animals. DOL says youth would be "prohibited from engaging, or assisting in…treating sick or injured animals."
Youth also would not be allowed, under the proposal, to cut and separate cattle from a herd if riding a horse. "No youth development data exists to suggest youth younger than 16 years have the cognitive ability to handle this responsibility," the proposal suggests.
Such restrictions and inconsistencies are why Anderson and other Michigan Farm Bureau officials are pleading with farmers to submit comments to the DOL before the Nov. 1 comment period expires. Submit comments here.