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Critics say the Department of Labor "scrubbed" its website of documents about child safety on farms
Critics say the Department of Labor "scrubbed" its website of documents about child safety on farms

Critics say farm safety rules scrapped because of election year politics

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The Obama administration has scrapped an effort to introduce new safety regulations designed to protect the tens of thousands of kids who work in agriculture.

Many farmers are applauding the decision to shelve the rules, calling it a victory for their rural way of life.

But safety experts say more teenagers under the age of 16 die each year working on farms than in all other industries combined.

With the presidential election just six months away, supporters and critics alike say the new rules were just too controversial. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

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Sam Kilpatrick is driving a tractor on his family’s farm in Granville, New York.   This is a big machine worth tens of thousands of dollars and it’s rigged with seats, slung just behind the massive rear tires.  Two women perch there, planting onions as Sam inches the machine forward.

"I love working on the farm and tractors –they’re pretty fun," Sam says.

"If you’re doing it by yourself, sometimes you can use an I-pod or something to make it go faster.  But when I’m doing this kind of work, since I’m communicating with people behind me, I don’t want to be distracted with something else."

That’s a lot of responsibility and Sam is just seventeen years old.  He’s been driving tractors and mowers since he was fifteen. "I kind of grew up around tractors, so I know the safety issues," he says. 

On farms like this, it’s common for teens to take the wheel of a big tractor or combine.  

But safety experts say roughly two dozen teenagers die on farms in work-related accidents every year. 

In 2009, the last year statistics were available, 3800 kids – most of them teenagers – were also seriously injured working on farms.  That's according to the Centers for Disease Control.

John Myers is a researcher with the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

He says kids working in agriculture still face levels of injury and death that were eliminated from other industries by child labor laws decades ago.

“When I compare them to other kids working in other places, the numbers are just so out of line, it’s hard to ignore them.”

The Obama administration initially agreed.  Last year the Labor Department began developing new regulations that would keep kids under the age of sixteen away from heavy livestock, chemicals and pesticides, and big machinery. 

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis defended the effort before a congressional panel this spring in Washington.

"I do know that we have to prevent any further injuries from young people, who are working in settings that are not protected.  So I think there is a compelling reason to look at this rule.  We haven't upgraded the rule for forty years." 

But the effort infuriated farmers and their supporters in Congress, Democrats and Republicans. 

They argued that it made no sense to compare farms with fast food restaurants and retail outlets — the kinds of places most teens work.  Democratic congressman  Bill Owens from Plattsburgh argued that the rules were clumsily written and too vague

"Not all of this equipment should be described as hazardous," he said, suggesting that the rules could prevent teens from using tools such as leaf-blowers.

At that hearing in Washington, Senator Jerry Moran from Kansas blasted Solis, describing the regulations as an attack on farming and a traditional way of life.

"If the Federal government can regulate the kind of relationship between parents and their children on their own family’s farm…there is almost nothing off-limit in which we see the Federal government intruding in a way of life."

The Labor Department tried to address those concerns by promising to exempt children who work on farms owned by their own families. 

The new rules would only have affected the teenagers who work as paid employees – including children of migrants workers.   

That didn’t satisfy farmers and late last month the Obama administration abruptly withdrew the regulations. 

"One of my suspicions and the suspicions of my colleagues is that this was a decision highly influenced by the Obama campaign," said Celeste Monforton, who spent ten years at the Labor Department. 

She's a workplace safety expert and teaches now at George Washington University.  She says it’s “unprecedented” for a rule-making process to be shut down so abruptly.   

In the days after the regulations were scrapped, the Labor Department removed a large number of documents from its website that had been used to justify the new rules – including one document stating that “injuries to children” are “definitely” a problem in agriculture.  

"The whole issue is just gone.  It’s as if the hazards for the children magically do not exist any longer." 

Farmers, meanwhile, applauded the Obama’s administration’s retreat on the safety rules.  Many, like Michael Kikpatrick, share the view that the move as political.

"Well I know an election’s coming up, for one thing," he said.

Kilpatrick manages his family farm here in Granville.  He describes himself in political terms as a libertarian and says the government had no place trying to meddle in operations like his.  

But Kilpatrick does say that his industry needs to do more to self-police, to protect kids from serious hazards like pesticides and industrial machinery.

"Bigger farms have huge equipment like silo unloaders, oh my goodness!  They’re very unsafe!  And manure pits?  And I see out in California with migrants picking vegetables and you have seven year olds out there, and that concerns me.  In those circumstances, I see that something needs to happen.  I just hate to see the government make broad rules that are going to affect everybody."

The Labor Department didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story. 

But they did release a strongly worded statement, promising farmers that new child safety rules "will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration."

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