Proposed federal rules would limit kids' work on farms

ByABC News
January 24, 2012, 8:11 PM

GRAND RIDGE, Ill. -- Tossing hay into cattle pens is the first chore Austin Walter remembers doing on his parents' farm. When he was 9, he got his first lesson in operating a tractor — in first gear only, his dad, Darren, says, "so I could go catch him."

Austin, who is now 14, tends heifers, makes sure the barbed-wire fence around the pasture is intact and helps clean equipment and care for calves on his grandfather and great-uncle's bigger farm a couple of miles down the road.

"This is what I want to do," says Austin, an A student and football player who has won many awards for showing livestock at fairs. "If you grow up in the farm atmosphere and you're safely trained and you enjoy it, I think you should be allowed to."

Proposed federal regulations could alter Austin's plans to work part time for pay on his relatives' farm. The Labor Department wants to update child-labor rules governing agricultural work for the first time in four decades.

The new rules would:

•Prohibit children under 16 who are being paid from operating most power-driven equipment, including tractors and combines. Some student-learners would be exempted from the ban on operating tractors and other farm implements, but only if the equipment has rollover protection and seat belts.

•Bar those under 18 from working at grain elevators, silos, feedlots and livestock auctions and from transporting raw farm materials.

•Prevent youths 15 and younger from cultivating, curing and harvesting tobacco to prevent exposure to green tobacco sickness, which is caused by exposure to wet tobacco plants.

•Prohibit youths from using electronic devices such as cellphones while operating power-driven equipment.

The legal age for children to be employed on a farm is 16 and would not change. The Fair Labor Standards Act also allows children 12 to 15 to have non-hazardous farm jobs under certain conditions.

The proposed regulations would not apply to children working at farms owned by their parents, but they would prevent youngsters from doing some jobs for pay at the farms of neighbors and relatives.

Threat to a lifestyle?

The proposed rules drew more than 18,000 public comments after they were published in September in the Federal Register and created a ruckus among farmers and ranchers. Some members of Congress hope to block them from taking effect.

"It's just more government trying to get in the middle of our lives" and could "change the whole (rural) lifestyle," says U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., who operates a 160-acre farm. "Farming is a very dangerous occupation, and you have to be aware of what you're doing, but I'm a whole lot more concerned about the safety of my kids and grandkids on the farm than the government."

Youngsters helping out on neighbors' farms "is a slice of Americana," Luetkemeyer says. "This is how we grew up."

Nancy Leppink, deputy administrator of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, says the changes are necessary to keep children safe. More than 15,000 youths under the age of 20 were injured on farms in 2009, according to the latest data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Most injuries involved farm chores, followed by accidents on all-terrain vehicles, horses and tractors.