There’s been a lot going on this past week so it’s likely that National Farm Safety Week, announced by Presidential Proclamation on September 19th may have escaped notice of those not working in agriculture. “America,” said President Obama in the proclamation, “depends on our farmers and ranchers to clothe our families, feed our people, and fuel our cars and trucks.” And he continued:
“While our farmers and ranchers are the best in the world, agriculture remains one of our country's most hazardous industries. Producers and their families are exposed to numerous safety and health dangers -- from vehicular fatalities and heat-related illnesses to injuries from falls and sicknesses from exposure to pesticides and chemicals. With preparation and proper training, these risks can be limited and lives can be saved. That is why my Administration continues to pursue innovative and comprehensive ways to lessen these hazards. We have invested in programs that improve youth farm safety, and last year, we announced plans to support the development of a national safety training curriculum for young agricultural workers.”
What caught my attention was the mention of safety training for young agricultural workers. In April 2012, much to the surprise – and distress – of those in the public health and workers’ rights community, the Obama administration withdrew its proposed regulation to increase protections for children aged 16 and under working on farms. “The decision to withdraw this rule — including provisions to define the 'parental exemption,'” wrote the Department of Labor (DOL) in its April 2012 press release, “was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms.”
“To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”
The proposed rule – which the Obama administration promised not to pursue – recommended that children aged 15 and younger who are being paid to do farm work be barred from some of the most hazardous types of agricultural work, including work involving grain silos, manure pits, motor vehicles, livestock and pesticides. “Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America," said then Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, announcing the proposed rule on August 31, 2011. “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.”
There are some state variations, but currently under federal law, anyone aged 16 and older can perform any farm job, including agricultural work the Department of Labor considers hazardous and can do so at any time, including during school hours. Children of 14 and older can be employed outside of school hours for any agricultural work except those jobs DOL considers hazardous, while children 12 and older can work outside of school hours if they have written parental consent and 13 year olds can work without written permission on farms where their parents or guardians also work. Children 12 and younger can be legally employed outside school hours with parental consent on farms exempt from federal minimum wage provisions – that is, small farms. However, children of any age can work if employed by a parent or guardian on farms owned or operated by those adults. The hazardous agricultural jobs prohibitions do not apply to children working on farms owned or operated by their parents. The proposed rule would have strengthened hazardous agricultural work provisions for 14 and 15 year olds and created new Hazardous Occupation Orders for those under 18.
When DOL abruptly withdrew the proposed rule in April 2012 it announced that: “Instead, the Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders — such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Future Farmers of America, and 4-H — to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.” So I set out to find out how this announced program is progressing.
No safety training required for children and teens working in agriculture
First, it helps to know that there are currently no nationwide requirements for safety training or education for young people working in agriculture. Any training is provided entirely voluntarily. “Under the law there are no federal mandatory requirements for training” young people who are hired to work in agriculture, explained American Farm Bureau Director of Congressional Relations, Kristi Boswell. “There is no required training or education at this point,” said Aida Balsano, a National Program Leader with the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture. But there are, she said, “lots of resources available.”
What I learned from the American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union and USDA is that following the Obama Administration’s withdrawal of its proposed rule on children working in agriculture, these and other stakeholders began working through the Safety for Youth in Agriculture program (SAY) to identify existing safety training and other educations materials that could become part of a national curriculum. In September 2013, USDA announced award of a $600,000 grant to Pennsylvania State University to “develop a national training curriculum that lessens agricultural hazards to young workers.”
When ready, “Curriculum materials will be placed on the eXtension website in the new Ag Safety and Health Community of Practice to be used in both formal and non-formal settings,” wrote USDA. Also on the agenda is “a national outreach strategy to promote use of the curriculum” and a clearinghouse for “national youth farm safety and education curriculum, state certification requirements and testing.” The first phase of the project is expected to be completed this fall. The draft curriculum materials will be presented at a National Youth Safety Symposium taking place in Louisville, Kentucky on October 27 and 28, where additional input will be gathered from program stakeholders.
At the same time, explained Balsano, project collaborators CareerSafe and Ohio State University are working to develop a 10-hour course that will meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) approval and be applicable to agricultural workplaces. “By late August or early September of 2015 we anticipate having a final rubric for evaluating programs; existing identified training programs evaluated; and an agreed upon training for teachers and credentialing for youth from USDA and DOL,” wrote Balsano in a follow-up email. (CareerSafe is a private company owned by K2Share. No staff is listed by name on the CareerSafe website. Only contact is via email or call centers.) “The ultimate goal is to have youth pass a program that is recognized by OSHA and USDA. The educator would be able to provide youth who participate and pass their training with a certification card of completion which will have the USDA and DOL (OSHA) logos,” wrote Balsano.
Children in agriculture: 38 injuries per day – 115 deaths per year
Meanwhile, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 955,000 youth under age 20 lived on farms in 2012. Just under 50% of these young people were reported to be performing farm work. In addition to the 472,000 children living on farms doing farm work, an additional 259,000 youth were hired to work on US farms in 2012 bringing the total estimated number of young people working on farms to approximately 731,000.
NIOSH estimates that slightly more than 100 youth die annually from farm related injuries while more than 15,000 sustain farm-related injuries. According to NIOSH, leading causes of these fatal injuries involved machinery – including tractors, motor vehicles – including ATVs and drowning. While non-fatal injury rates have declined significantly since 1998, the National Children’s Center for Agricultural Health and Safety estimates that they are increasing among children under age 10. The Center also estimates that on average, 38 children per day suffer farm-related injuries.
This is the context in which the Obama Administration withdrew a proposed rule that would have strengthened safety requirements for young people and children working in agriculture – and in which there are currently no national safety training requirements.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.