Agriculture coalitions submit comments for Labor Department new child worker rules

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2- The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently proposed regulations regarding child labor safety regulations for agricultural and agriculture-related jobs. Agricultural organizations nationwide believe that the rules would significantly limit employment opportunities for youth in agriculture.

The proposed regulations would not apply to children working on farms owned by their parents; however, agricultural organizations that reviewed the rules say it is unclear as to how children would be considered under partnership agreements, LLCs, corporations or working on relative's farms. The regulations could affect family members that are not children of farm owners or operators. Also unclear is how children engaged in supervised youth events such as 4-H and FFA livestock shows or tractor-driving contests would be treated.

The National Farmers Union submitted comments on the proposal urging the Department of Labor to look at certain rules that may be overreaching. NFU suggested the department take this opportunity to clarify certain aspects of the parental exemption for children employed in agriculture. 

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“There are some provisions included in the rule that need modification,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “For example, proposed restrictions on youth working in agriculture-related industries and the removal of student-learner exemptions for certain agricultural tasks may serve to discourage youth from learning about or pursuing a career in agriculture or related trades at a time when we desperately need to support the next generation of farmers and agribusiness professionals.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation this week filed comments on behalf of more than 70 agricultural organizations in response to a proposal, as well as separate comments of its own. The coalition comments focused on what Farm Bureau and other agriculture organizations see as over-reaching regulatory efforts by DOL. Most prominent is the proposal's potential impact on family farms. The coalition comments urged the department “to maintain the integrity of the family farm exemption approved by Congress.”

“Farmers and ranchers are more interested than anyone else in assuring the safety of farming operations,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman. “We have no desire at all to have young teenagers working in jobs that are inappropriate or entail too much risk.”

Stallman added that families, family partnerships and family corporations own 98 percent of the approximately 2 million farms and ranches in the country, and “their right to operate their farms with family members is specifically permitted by Congress. We don't want to see those rights infringed.”

The proposed changes are based on the enforcement experiences of its Wage and Hour Division, recommendations made by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and what the DOL says is "a commitment to bring parity between the rules for young workers employed in agricultural jobs and the more stringent rules that apply to those employed in nonagricultural workplaces."

The Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the fatality rate for agricultural workers who are 15 to 17 years of age is 4.4 times greater than the risk for the average worker in that age range. The most common cause of agricultural deaths among young workers is farm machinery, with tractors involved in over half of the fatalities. For example, last year the WHD investigated the death of an 8-year-old who was killed when he was pulled into a potato conveyor.

Young farm workers also experience a high incidence of injuries and those injuries tend to be more severe than those suffered by nonagricultural workers. The DOL cited a 2009 accident where an 11-year-old boy's leg was severed 6" below the knee while he was sweeping grain to a central location inside a silo.

The DOL originally requested public comment by Nov. 1, but there has been so much controversy over the proposed rule that Sens. Jerry Moran, R-KS, and Ben Nelson, D-NE, generated a letter to the agency requesting more time. The extended comment period ended yesterday, Dec. 1. 

The proposed regulations make a number of substantial changes, including:

--Significantly limit contact with tractors of any size for hired youth below the age of 16.

--Expand existing restrictions to prohibit most, if not all, operation of power-driven machinery by hired youth under age 16. A similar prohibition has existed as part of the nonagricultural child labor provisions for more than 50 years. 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.

--Prohibit most herding activities and involvement with activities that might inflict pain on animals by hired youth. The rule holds youth under 16 years old "lack the cognitive ability" to herd animals on horseback, specifically outlining no cutting or separating cattle. Further, the proposed rule would prohibit youth from "engaging, or assisting, in animal husbandry practices." These activities outlined include branding, breeding, dehorning, vaccinating, castrating, and treating sick or injured animals.

--Prohibit hired youth from working at a height greater than 6 feet above another elevation (implicating activities such as fruit harvest and stacking hay).

--Prohibit hired youth under 16 from working inside a fruit, forage, or grain storage container or inside a manure pit.

--Prohibit farm workers under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.

--Prohibit hired youth in both agricultural and nonagricultural employment from using electronic (including communication) devices while operating power-driven equipment.

Also, the DOL is proposing a new nonagricultural hazardous occupations order that would prevent children under 18 from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of agricultural raw materials. Prohibited places of employment would include grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

In addition, the DOL also solicited comments on the potential need to limit hired youths' exposure to "extreme" temperatures.

To view the proposed rule and submitted comments, visit the federal e-rulemaking portal at and search by regulation identification number 1235-AA06.


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