Long in the works, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is set to release proposed updates to child labor regulations aimed at safety concerns in agriculture-related jobs.

DOL officials -- who claim the fatality rate for teenagers working in agriculture is four times greater than the risk for the average working teenager -- say the proposals will not impact current exemptions for children of farmers working on family operations.

For more see Farm worker woes and updating child labor laws.

Exemptions for such children are "legislative and nothing in (these new regulations) would disturb that particular legislative provision,” said Michael Hancock, DOL Assistant Administrator for Policy, during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

For other farm-working youths, however, the proposed rules – which have not been updated since the 1970 Fair Labor Standards Act – would add new restrictions and flat-out bans. Among them:

  • Strengthening of current child labor regulations prohibiting agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins.
  • Prohibition of youths at country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

During the work-up of the new rules “It became apparent there were hazards in grain bins and other enclosed spaces where children were working both on farms and off,” said Hancock. “There have been a number of fairly high-profile incidents involving children through engulfment or other tragic injuries and accidents. So, we saw this as an opportunity to also propose rules for grain bins and other such structures.”

Prompted by later questions, Hancock said the new rules “would essentially preclude kids under 18 from being on the premises of a commercial grain elevator.” While previous regulations attempted to address such situations “there was never any broad, sweeping prohibition on kids working in a grain elevator. It had to be specific -- like working with an augur or lift. We’ve concluded in grain elevators there are too many hazards and kids shouldn’t be present in that work place.”

  • Prohibition of those under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.
  • Prohibition of youth in both agricultural and nonagricultural employment from using electronic, including communication, devices while operating power-driven equipment.

“’Distracted driving’,” said Hancock, “was becoming a major issue that the Department of Transportation and DOL were interested in trying to address. We thought this was an opportunity to propose a regulation that affects not (only) children working on farms but also children employed in non-agricultural occupations.

“We thought it was worth the time and effort to pull the rule back and add additional provisions dealing with distracted driving.”

  • Prohibition of those under 16 years old from operating almost all power-driven equipment. A limited exemption would permit some student learners to operate certain farm implements and tractors, when equipped with proper rollover protection structures and seat belts, under specified conditions.

Hancock: “There are a number different changes and additions that deal with farm equipment generally – whether tractors or other power-driven machinery that we’ve concluded present an unacceptable risk to children.

In the proposed rules “we’ve identified a number of very specific implements in the work place that present an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to children. In most cases, they’ll be precluded from working around those implements.

“There is a small window that still exists for children in a legitimate training/student learner program. That will allow them, under close supervision and after sufficient training, to continue to work with things like tractors.”

According to a DOL press release, it is also proposing to create “a new nonagricultural hazardous occupations order that would prevent children under 18 from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials.”

The right balance?

During the press conference, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said she was “proud to announce that the (DOL) is proposing revisions to child labor regulations that would provide added safeguards for young workers employed in agriculture…

“Our proposal has important implications for those who work in agriculture. … We’re inviting the public to provide comment on its provisions.”

Solis said the proposed rules are “also part of our effort to better align the rules that apply agricultural employment with those that apply to the employment of children in non-agricultural work places.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. We cannot, and will not, stand by while so many of them continue to work in unsafe and unhealthy work places.

“Though the number of young, hired farm workers is relatively small, they’re employed in one of the most dangerous occupations. Their job duties can range from working with animals to pesticide handling, timber operations, grain bins and complex, power-driven equipment. These are activities best left to trained adults.”

In 2009, said Solis “we found egregious child labor among blueberry farms in several states across the country. We put a stop to it. We made sure employers understood the law and made sure workers understood it, too.

“It is important to note that our proposed rule is designed to strike the right balance. (It) doesn’t change the parental exemption, which allows the child of a farmer to do anything at any age, at any time of day, on a farm owned by his or her parents.”

The public comment period on the new regulations will run through Nov. 1. A public hearing will follow the comment period. The DOL says a complete list of the proposed revisions will be available in the Federal Register on Friday (September 2).

Asked how the new regulations might impact Latino children working U.S. farms, Hancock saidthe DOL’s intention “is to protect all children working in an agricultural setting.  Of course, Latino children and their families are heavily present in that industry. We expect they’ll be one of the primary beneficiaries of this. But the intent is to protect children and we think that’ll be accomplished by this.”

What about restrictions based on age?

All of what the DOL proposes “is within the confines of legislation,” said Hancock. “Legislation not only allows the children of farmers to work unimpeded on the (family) farm without any age restriction, (there are) a number of different exceptions that allow children even under 12 years old to work in agriculture under certain, circumscribed conditions. That’s been in the legislation since the beginning and nothing in (the new proposals) will disturb that.”

So, there’s no minimum age for children working a farm 12 hours a day?

“Again, the legislation is something that sets the parameters on what we can do,” replied Hancock. “Having said that, we think a number of these provisions will have a profound impact on children working in agriculture no matter their age – particularly for children of 14 and 15 years, who will now be prohibited from doing certain occupations they’ve heretofore been able to do.

“In addition, we’re asking for comments on a particular issue about whether or not certain conditions may persist in the agriculture work place that we should take a closer look at. Things like when the heat reaches a certain point and presents a hazard we need to look at.

Again, we think these are fairly sweeping protections we’re extending to all children in the agricultural work place without regard to age.”