After two teenagers’ legs were severed while they were working near a grain auger, I wrote last month about the White House’s role in holding up a proposed Labor Department rule to address hazards for young workers. After a 9-month delay by the White House, the Labor Department released the proposed rule last week and is asking the public to submit comments on it by November 1. After reviewing the proposal, it’s hard to imagine why such common sense improvements to protect young workers drew such time-consuming scrutiny from the President’s regulatory czar.
The proposed rules will amend the Agricultural Child Labor Hazardous Occupations Orders which were last amended in 1970. The work activities addressed by the orders are particularly dangerous activities, such as operating power-driven combines, augers, pickers, post drivers, and balers, especially for individuals under age 16. As the Labor Department’s proposal notes:
“…the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the adolescent brain to fully mature and that the process is not completed until the early twenties or beyond. With that maturation, the executive functioning of youth is fine-tuned, improving their ability to understanding future risks and impulsive actions.”
They also refer to a paper by Johns Hopkins’ researchers Sudhinaraset & Blum which describes neuromaturation, pubertal development, physical growth, and social contexts as risk factors for work-related injuries.
Lest anyone criticize the Obama Administration for interferring with the family farm, the document notes in the very first paragraph that the proposal:
“in no way compromises the statutory child labor parental exemption involving children working on farms owned or operated by their parents.”
The rules, if implemented, would only affect hired farm workers under age 16. The best estimate of the number of workers affected is less than 15,000 nationwide.
The proposed safety restrictions for agricultural workers under age 16 include:
*prohibiting them from operating a tractor, unless the young worker has completed at least 90 hours of an agricultural-vocational training program, AND the tractor is equipped with an approved roll-over protective structure (ROPS);
*requiring student-learners (enrolled in agricultural vocational training programs) to have a State driver’s license to operate farm machinery on a public road;
*prohibiting them from working in wrecking, demolition and excavation;
*prohibiting them from working on roofs, scaffolds and elevations greater than 6 feet;
*prohibiting all work inside of fruit, forage or grain silos and bins, and manure pits;
*prohibting them from work as a pesticide handler;
*prohibiting them from working in most occupations at grain elevators, feed yards, stockyards, livestock auctions and exchanges; and
*prohbiting the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while operating power-driven equipment, including cars and trucks.
The evidence is compelling that young workers employed in agriculture are at greater risk of death than their older counterparts. The fatal-injury rate for all U.S. workers is 3.5 per 100,000 workers. The rate for 15 to 24 year old workers in agriculture is nearly six times higher at 21.3 deaths per 100,000 workers. The Labor Department’s proposal describes cases they’ve investigated of young workers who were seriously injured doing agricultural jobs. One recent investigation involved:
“…a 15-year-old female who was pressed against a metal corral by a stampeding calf. The minor was employed to herd livestock in and out of pens in preparation for sale and/or transport. The young worker, who was knocked down and then stomped by hooves, suffered a life-threatening laceration of her liver, broken ribs, a cracked femur, and a crushed bile duct. Complications arising from her injuries prolonged her hospital stay to over five weeks.”
In this case, the young worker was performing a task already prohibited by the existing regulations, and the Labor Department is proposing to extend this prohibition to 16 and 17 year olds.
As young worker specialist Mary Miller, RN, MN wrote recently
for the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety: “a century ago, child labor in the U.S. was an accepted practice across all industries. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 took children under 16 out of most workplaces for their own safety and over time has restricted most hazardous work activities for 16- and 17-year olds. Agriculture has been the lone exception.”
I certainly recognize the financial and social benefits to teenagers of part-time jobs, whether babysitting or tutoring, or being a lifeguard or cashier, or the dozens of other tasks developmentally appropriate for young people. I’ll be interested to see if the Labor Department receives any comments opposing the proposed prohibited tasks and their rationale for saying so.