Dec 20, 2012
Labor department scraps child worker rule

Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed extensive new rules restricting the kind of work people under 16 could do on farms. The majority of the restrictions revolved around 13 Hazardous Occupation Orders, or HOs, which were either completely off-limits for those under 16 or could be done by 14- and 15-year-olds only under specific training programs. Most of the restrictions involved livestock or equipment operations, although some were written so broadly and vaguely that agricultural legal counsel advised that prohibitions on powered devices would prohibit operation of simple tools such as flashlights and battery powered screwdrivers.

Initially, there seemed little interest by the general agricultural community in the DOL proposals. With the exception of several state Farm Bureau organizations and a few national groups, there was little grassroots concern when the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) and other groups filed comments and signed on to a larger industry comment coordinated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, requesting an extension last October. At about that point, the agricultural community fully awakened to the potential impact the proposed rule might have on agriculture as a rural way of life, and dozens of groups began to work together to reach newspapers, radio and other media outlets across the country. Because so many of the proposed bans involved livestock operations, animal agriculture groups, 4-H and FFA organizations became particularly active and vocal. The wording of the family farm exemptions became a key point of discussion and concern.

On April 26, the Department of Labor issued a preliminary press release to Congressional staff announcing the withdrawal of the proposed rule. Here’s a quote from part of the statement: “The decision to withdraw this rule – including provisions to define the ‘parental exemption’ – 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. 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.”

NCAE is pleased with this announcement and congratulates the many agricultural associations, groups and individuals who worked so hard to keep the pressure on. Even DOL will listen, if the responses come from such a wide grassroots base, are rational and clear and are sustained over a long time. All who participated are to be congratulated. The recent release of USDA statistics showing that injuries to youth under 20 years old were down 46 percent in 2009 versus 2001, and down 63 percent for farm work-related injuries, may have been a factor as well.

The existing rules still leaves gaps between what we believe was Congress’s intent and the reality of the legal structures of modern family farm ownership. As a result, the direction of DOL investigations in 2012 will bear watching. Additionally, we will need to watch for state level legislative or regulatory proposals sponsored by other groups as a way around the failure to implement the federal rule.

In addition to all rules and laws, every agricultural employer and every farm family has a moral responsibility to promote and create a culture of safety around farm work and farm life. Part of this is recognition and acceptance of the fact that youth and other less experienced workers require more training and more supervision to work safely. It is important to remember and act on the fact that even one farm accident is one too many, that the majority of accidents result from insufficient training or familiarity with the job, haste, fatigue or some combination of these – and to take intentional actions to address these three hazards, in addition to all mechanical and technical safety issues.

We have said that youth work experiences represent the future of agriculture, and that parents and family are best equipped to manage the safety and welfare of their own children. Having said that, it is imperative that every farm family, every agricultural business operation, make and enforce clear training and supervision programs to offer age-appropriate safeguards to all youth who work or play on the farm. Agriculture has rightly said that DOL should not change or add to the rules and that farm families will make the right decisions. So, let’s all resolve to prove what we said was correct.

By Frank Gasperini, Executive Vice President, National Council of Agricultural Employers

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