EHS OutLoud Blog

When I Was a Kid…and Other Fairy Tales

farmmachin.jpgI rarely read my local newspaper because in my opinion, it’s full of shoddy journalism. Reading it irritates me. This past vacation week, however, I read something that went beyond shoddy journalism and moved into the realm of irresponsible journalism.

It’s one thing to get basic facts incorrect (something my hometown newspaper regularly does) but another to encourage people to disregard common sense and violate OSHA and Department of Labor regulations.

A recent editorial in the newspaper titled “Hilda Solis Is on her High Horse Over Kids on the Farm” took Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to task for attempting to promulgate regulations for workers on family farms. For those of you who are not aware of this, family farms are exempt from DOL wage and hour regulations and from OSHA regulations that dictate the age of workers who can operate certain machinery and the amount of time children are allowed to work. A kid on a family farm can operate saws, drive heavy equipment, work around large farm animals, work 12-hour days, etc.

The Department of Labor proposes prohibiting hired workers under 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment unless they have been “enrolled in a vocational education program in agriculture under a recognized state or local educational authority or in a substantially similar program conducted by a private school.” The proposed rules also would prohibit anyone under 18 from working at feed lots and livestock exchanges, and would prohibit young people from doing any work that would take them more than 6 feet above ground level or engaging in any activity that would expose them to “unpredictable animal behavior.”

The author of the editorial, endorsed by the newspaper’s editorial board, claimed to have grown up on a livestock auction lot owned by his father and as a child, hung off the running board of a pickup truck to shovel feed into animal stalls. He boasted, “The first vehicle I learned to drive was an International Harvester tractor. The second was a bulldozer, which was a heck of a lot more fun. The third was my dad's pickup truck. Later that year, I turned 11.”

Back in the day, when my dad was growing up on a farm, the farmer’s children were the main source of farm labor. I get that. Farmers had big families to help with the feeding and care of farm animals, to work in the fields, to bring in the crops, etc. Americans also, at that time, didn’t have seatbelts, thought that smoking was a healthy pastime, had no issues with drinking and driving or drinking while pregnant and didn’t require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. During my dad’s childhood, they also put real candles on the Christmas tree, didn’t vaccinate their children or animals, believed that education took second place to farm responsibilities and smoked cigarettes at age 10.

Seventy years later, none of these things are accepted practice in the United States because we have recognized them as harmful and dangerous, so in this day and age, why should children working on farms be treated differently than any other young workers in any other industries? Given the hazards found on farms, is anyone surprised that children working in the agricultural industry (farms, feed lots, auction lots) have a fatality rate four times greater than that of kids employed in other jobs?

Why would anyone endorse allowing children to be exposed to some of the most hazardous working conditions in the country? What passes for a family farm these days, and therefore not subject to OSHA or DOL regulations, is anything but a family farm. Most are part of multi-national cooperatives bringing in millions of dollars on the backs of an underpaid work force that includes our most vulnerable workers: children.

If the agricultural industry won’t protect its children, then the federal government must do it. I applaud Secretary of Labor Solis for undertaking what is certain to be an ugly fight: Convincing one of the most entitled groups in our country – Congress – and one of the most entitled industries in our country – agriculture – to do the right thing and protect young workers.

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