National Consumers League

Worker Rights

Worker Rights

Common sense child labor protections under attack

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Young girl working with sharp cutting shears in a fieldA teenager's first job is an important rite of passage for many, offering that first taste of adult responsibility; but young teenagers are not yet adults and need to be protected from the risks of dangerous work. Certain jobs and industries, especially farming and agriculture, pose unique safety concerns. Common sense dictates that young teens be protected from hazardous agricultural work, yet it’s this common sense reasoning that’s currently under attack.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently proposed the first update to the rules governing child labor in hazardous work in over 40 years, with the strong support of NCL and the Child Labor Coalition, a group of 28 organizations focused on child labor issues that NCL co-chairs. While there has been a great deal of coverage highlighting agribusiness and its opposition to the changes, under the guise that the new rules would somehow impair the family farm or “rural way of life,” what’s often lost in the conversation is that the rules would protect children from harm, injury, and death. The opposition to these necessary changes is especially startling given the facts:

  • More children die in agriculture than in any other industry.
  • According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms – that’s well over 100 preventable deaths of youth per year.
  • In 2011, 12 of the 16 children under the age of 16 who suffered fatal occupational injuries worked in crop production, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • When you include older children, more than half of all workers under age 18 who died from work-related injuries worked in crop production.

Agriculture is consistently ranked as one of the three most dangerous industries, along with construction and mining, yet children are still allowed to work in agriculture under extremely dangerous conditions, such as handling poisonous pesticides, managing animals that can way upwards of 3,000 pounds, and operating heavy machinery. Just this summer, Oklahoma teens Tyler Zander and Bryce Gannon, both 17, each lost a leg in a grain auger accident. Agriculture uses far more machines and dangerous chemicals since the last update to rules for child workers more than 40 years ago.

DOL’s proposed rules will also preserve the “parental exemption,” allowing any child to do any job at any age on their parents’ farm. DOL also recently announced that they will redefine the parental exemption to be more inclusive of other types of family members.  Contrary to assertions by some in the farming industry:

  • Children as young as 12 will continue to be able to engage in non-hazardous farm work – just not the jobs that have proven to be especially hazardous—and will prevent such avoidable tragedies as children drowning in grain silos, being crushed by tractors or being maimed by heavy machinery.
  • Educational programs, such as FFA and 4-H, will continue to teach children about agriculture under safe conditions, including raising farm animals.

We can prevent needless tragedies from happening to children by implementing the proposed updates to the child occupational safety rules without any further delay. The rules won’t impair the rural way of life; they simply put the safety and well being of children above corporate profit. Every day we wait puts at risk the well being of these child workers and could cost them their lives.