Farm State Outrage Intensifies Over Labor Dept. Proposal to Ban Children From Doing Some Chores on Farms

By Patrick Burke | February 1, 2012 | 12:57pm EST

(AP photo)

( - Farmers and congressmen from farm states continue to slam proposed U.S. Department of Labor farm regulations, which would bar farm children under 16 from operating tractors and other machinery and working with livestock.

“This is what happens when big city bureaucrats try to craft policies for rural America,” Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) said of the proposals.

Rehberg, who has become of the proposal’s most ardent opponents, criticized the Labor Department for drafting regulations that he says are unnecessary.

“(The) most effective way to become a safe and effective operator of farm implements is to learn at a young age under the guidance of a knowledgeable and careful instructor,” he said.

Farm groups like the South Dakota Farmers Union have also joined in the protest.

“Our children are our greatest resource for continuing family agricultural operations. Without being allowed to learn the day-to-day operation of the farm or ranch, the future of rural America would be in jeopardy.” said in official comments on Dec. 1,

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis announced the proposal on Sept. 2.

"Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America," Solis, a former California congresswoman from Los Angeles, said.

"Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."

The public was originally able to submit comments regarding the proposal’s content until Nov. 1. However, many organizations and individuals requested an extension to the comment period as a result of the controversy surrounding the provisions listed. The Department of Labor obliged, and permitted public comment until Dec. 1.

Specifically, the proposed regulations would:

-- prohibit minors from “Operating a Tractor of Over 20 Horsepower;”

-- prohibit minors from “working on a farm in a yard, pen, or stall” that contains various types of livestock.-- prohibit the use of electronic devices such as cell phones while operating machinery;

-- prohibit minors from working in grain silos;

-- prohibit young workers under 16 from working in “tobacco production and curing in order to prevent occupational illness due to green tobacco sickness (GTS)”

-- Prohibit young workers from “working from a ladder or scaffold at a height of over 20 feet” or

Another provision would “limit the exposure of young hired farm workers to extreme temperatures and/or arduous conditions.” (The DOL is currently asking for comment on this proposal.)

Because of the potential alterations to existing child labor laws, the proposal also calls for new penalties and fines as a means of enforcing the new regulations.

A minor under the age of 16 may be exempted from the regulations if enrolled in a 4-H vocational or educational program, which requires a completion of at least 90 hours of farm-related training and education. Minors may also be exempt if employed on a farm by their parents or guardians, and the parents or guardians own and operate the farm.

But Paul Schlegel, public policy director for the American Farm Bureau, said that many family farms are in fact owned by corporations.

“The thing that I think has caused the greatest degree of concern is how they would interpret the parental exemption in the law because if they do what appears they are trying to do, they would narrow the exemptions considerably,” Schlegel told

“One of the others that has caused concern is the ability of kids to work around livestock -- and now they have a very broad definition of power-driven equipment, which appears as though it would eliminate lots of jobs that are not particularly hazardous.”

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, there were 16,100 farm related injuries of “children and adolescents” in 2009, 3,400 of which were work related.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 5,719 work related deaths of young workers occurred between 1998 and 2007, and between 2003 and 2007, 10 percent of fatal injuries to young workers (aged 15-24) took place in the agricultural industry.

However, child injuries on farms decreased by 59 percent from 1998-2009 according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wis.

There is no official date as to when the new regulations will take effect.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 gives the Labor Secretary power to determine both what is “suitable” and “hazardous or detrimental” labor for children.

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