How old were you when you got your first paying job? For most of you the answer will be 16 or later. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to establish for the first time a minimum age for lawful employment in the United States. That age was- and still is- 16. In those industries identified as particularly hazardous, such as mining, the minimum age is 18. But in agriculture, which ranks among the most hazardous industries, kids as young as 10 can be lawfully employed. As an article in this week’s Independent Weekly explains, children working on North Carolina farms face all kinds of risks, including heat stress and pesticide exposure.
Last fall the United States Department of Labor (USDOL) proposed new rules to protect children from dangerous work in agriculture. This is the first update to the rules in 40 years. The proposed changes were based largely on recommendations made by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Those rules would create 15 new Agricultural Hazardous Occupation Orders, or “Ag. H.O.s.” Children under age 16 would not be allowed to work in the occupations designated as an “Ag. H.O.” unless it is on a farm owned and operated by their parents. If adopted, the rules would, among other things:
- Prohibit children from handling pesticides;
- Restrict children from working in tobacco production;
- Restrict Farmworker children from operating most tractors, and require rollover protections and seatbelts in those instances when children can drive tractors;
- Prohibit children from operating power equipment;
- Require seatbelts for Farmworker children riding in vehicles;
- Restrict Farmworker children from working with particularly dangerous livestock and from performing particularly risky animal-related activities, such as catching poultry; and
- Prohibit working on roofs or elevated structures, in storage bins, or in manure pits.
Unfortunately, despite the obvious and inherent dangers of the agriculture industry – especially for children — the national farm lobby has stalled implementation of these changes and is trying to get them thrown out all together. Advocates for the reforms are urging those who think protecting farmworker youth from hazardous activities is positive step to contact Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and to sign on to a change.org petition.
Let’s hope the reforms remain on track.