Tougher labor rules to protect children at farms fail

ByABC News
June 12, 2012, 8:48 PM

— -- Summertime can mean danger for children on farms.

An 18-year-old Amish man died from oxygen deprivation and his 14-year-old brother was injured last month as they worked in a neighbor's farm silo in Pennsylvania. Also last month, a Maryland man and his sons, 18 and 14, died of asphyxiation while working in a farm manure pit.

The federal government and safety groups are working to build awareness of farm hazards after a Labor Department decision to withdraw regulations that would have restricted children's work on farms.

Opposition from farm groups and farm-state members of Congress helped scuttle the proposal, which would have barred those younger than 16 who were being paid from using power-driven equipment such as tractors. Those under 18 would have been unable to work at grain elevators, silos and feedlots. The rules would not have applied to children working at farms owned by their parents but would have prevented youngsters from some jobs for pay at neighbors' and relatives' farms.

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, says the demise of the proposed rules "was truly a grass-roots effort." Farm safety "is critically important," she says, "but broad-reaching federal regulation isn't the best approach."

The Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups met recently with Agriculture Department officials to discuss ways to improve farm-safety education programs, Boswell says. The Labor Department also is working on educational programs.

"We're worried about" reliance on educational programs alone, says Reid Maki, director of social responsibility and fair labor standards for the National Consumers League, a non-profit economic and social-justice advocacy group. "We think there have to be firm regulations."

His organization this month ranked agriculture No. 1 on its list of the five most dangerous jobs for teens. Maki believes the now-defunct rules could have saved 50 to 100 lives over the next decade. About 1 million children younger than 20 lived on farms in 2010 and more than 15,000 of them were injured, says the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Barbara Lee, senior research scientist at the National Farm Medicine Center, says summer, when children "don't have any other place to be," is the most dangerous time on farms. She urges parents to keep children younger than 7 away from active work sites and prevent those younger than 12 from being on or near tractors.

Joan Woods, whose three children help out on the family's ranch in California, says parents, not government, know best. "No parent I know would ever put their kids' safety at risk," she says.