In July, 14-year-old Ben Troyer of Michigan died on a farm when he became caught in a belt and pulley while operating a feed grinder. In January, seven-year-old Tanner Hlavaty died in Kansas after being run over by a tractor while helping feed cattle. A few months earlier, 12-year-old Christen Wolland was crushed to death when he fell off a combine on a South Dakota farm.
On average, 104 children die each year as a result of farm accidents in the United States. More than 22,000 are injured, a rate that is four times that for other young workers. After years of dithering, the United States Labor Department has proposed to add new jobs to its list of work that is too hazardous for children to perform on farms—the first substantive change to regulations since the 1970s.
Changes are long overdue. Agricultural workers in general—and children who toil on farms in specific—have suffered under a federally mandated double standard since the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted in 1938.
Under that law, there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms, provided they have parental permission. At age 12, children are allowed to work on any farm if their parents consent. By age 14 a child no longer needs parental permission. In non-agricultural jobs, children between the ages of 14 and 15 are allowed to work a maximum of three hours on a school day and eight hours on a non-school day. There are no daily limits for farmworkers. And like adult farmworkers, children in agriculture are entitled to no overtime, even if they work more than eight hours a day or more than 40 hours a week. By age 16, it is perfectly legal for a child to mix, handle, and apply even the most toxic persicides.
And although the United States government makes much of child labor abuses in other countries, Human Rights Watch notes that our own agricultural laws are in violation with the United Nations’ “International Labor Organization Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.”
Given the extent of the abuses, the Labor Department’s proposals seem timid at best. The department wants to require that workers who operate tractors and other heavy machinery be at least 16 years old. (Under current law, it is illegal for a child to drive a front end loader on a construction site, but perfectly legal on a farm.) Children under 16 will also be prevented from working in tobacco fields, where they can be sickened by nicotine, and those under 18 will also be forbidden to work at grain elevators of feed lots.
These are all steps in the right direction, but by any definition, they are baby steps.