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New York state Health Officials say this sileage defacer killed an 18-year-old farm worker in a work accident in 2005 (Photo:  NYS Department of Health)
New York state Health Officials say this sileage defacer killed an 18-year-old farm worker in a work accident in 2005 (Photo: NYS Department of Health)

War of words escalates over farm safety for kids

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Farmers and members of Congress are pushing back hard against a plan by the Obama administration's to impose new safety rules on farms that employ children.

Critics say the proposed regulations would limit the ability of farm families to employ their own kids and could threaten a traditional way of life in rural America.

But supporters of the new rules say far too many teenagers are suffering serious injuries or dying on farms.

And they say many of the teenagers who work on farms in the US are hourly workers, with no family ties to the farmers who hire them.

As Brian Mann reports, this is a political fight that could reshape the way Americans think about farms and farm work.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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 Every year in America roughly two dozen children die while working on farms in work-related accidents. 

In 2009, the last year that statistics were available, another 3,800 kids – most of them teenagers – were injured severely enough on farms that they had to take time off from work. 

John Myers is a researcher with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control. 

He says kids working on farms face a risk three times higher than kids working in other industries.

“When I compare them to other kids working in other places, the numbers [of injuries and deaths] are just so out of line, it’s hard to ignore them," he said.

The highest risk activities, Myers says, are the ones you might expect – kids working around heavy machinery, tractors and combines – and also young people working around big animals.

Another risk-factor is kids working directly with chemicals and pesticides.

Responding to those statistics, the US Department of Labor moved to develop new regulations designed to keep teenage workers safe, by limiting the types of work they’re allowed to do.

US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis spoke before a congressional panel last month in Washington.

"So I think there is a compelling reason to look at this rule," she argued.  "We haven't upgraded the rule for forty years.  So we just want to make sure we get it right."

But the proposed rules triggered a political firestorm, with farmers, agriculture industry groups and members of Congress pushing back hard, trying to have the new regulations scaled back or eliminated altogether. 

Kelly Young with the New York Farm Bureau says there are two main objections: first that the rules are too vague and could be interpreted as restricting even harmless activities.

"Because of how broad the hazardous occupation orders are, they can't wash a farm truck for instance," she said.  "These are things that are far beyond keeping our kids safe."

But the bigger concern is that these rules could affect family farms, restricting the ability of a young person to work for their parents or relatives without government meddling.

The New York Farm Bureau’s website accuses Federal officials of trying to “tell us how to raise our kids.”

Bill Owens, the Democratic congressman who represents the North Country, co-sponsored legislation  called the “Preserving America’s Family Farms Act.”

The bill is designed to eliminate most government oversight of kids working on farms owned by their families.

"My desire is not to shut this down in its entirety," Owens said.  "I think there is a place for rational regulation, but they need to solve this family farm issue."

But here’s where this story gets complicated.  Department of Labor officials say Federal law already includes a sweeping exemption for farms that put family members to work.

They say these new regulations include a specific exemption for kids who are members of families.  The new rules would only apply to teenagers who are working as paid employees, not as family.

Farm worker advocates like Virginia Ruiz, with a group called Formworker Justice, say the agriculture industry has used the family-farm issue to try to block common sense protections for kids, protections that other industries have had in place for decades.

"Child labor is heavily regulated.  There's no reason that young people should be treated differently in agriculture.  They should be entitled to a safe workplace," she said.

When the non-partisan fact-checking website Politifact investigated the ag industry’s claims about the impact of these regulations on kids working on farms owned by their families, it concluded that the claims were “mostly false.” 

Politifact pointed to specific language in the regulation which read as follows:

"The proposed agricultural revisions would impact only hired farm workers and in no way compromise the statutory child labor parental exemption involving children working on farms owned or operated by their parents."

Asked about that language, the Farm Bureau’s Kelly Young said farmers still worry that the regulations leave a loophole that might allow Federal officials to describe some family-owned farms as corporations or non-family businesses.

"We're getting to really specific [questions of] who is that business and who is the owner of that farm and it's not a person anymore.  Times have changed and farms are organized in LLCs and S-Corps and C-Corps.  That's not covered by the exemption."

In February, the Department of Labor said that it would clarify the regulation’s language to make it absolutely clear that even in cases where a family farm is owned through a corporate structure or LLC, the family exemption will apply.

At the heart of this fight is a larger battle over how America thinks about farming.  

A film released in 2010 called "The Harvest" portrayed teenage farm workers as akin sweatshop employees, trapped in a risky industry with low pay and few protections.

"We need the money," one young girl says during the film, describing her life as a migrant laborer.  "I make like $64 a week."

Farms are bigger and more industrial than they were half a century ago. 

But farm advocates say agriculture is still a traditional American way of life, a family enterprise that doesn’t warrant the same oversight that takes place in factories or other high risk occupations.  

"If you don't have kids involved in farms at a young age, it's hard for them to gain the experience they need to decide that's the career they want to choose," said the Farm Bureau's Kelly Young.

Again, researchers say roughly two dozen teenagers die while working on farms every year.

Of those, roughly forty percent are paid employees who would be covered by these regulations as currently written.  The other sixty percent are family-members who will likely be exempt. 

Final language is expected to be issued by the Department of Labor this summer, unless Congress acts first to intervene and reshape the proposed rules.  


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