Child labor law changes ‘assault’ on farm culture
March 16, 2012
Summit County farmers and ranchers, like others across the nation, aren’t looking forward to possible changes of child labor laws, which they believe could heavily impact the culture of agriculture in the United States. And growing debate has sparked a standoff between rural and urban, with rural parties believing changes attack that lifestyle.
The U.S. Department of Labor proposed changes to the law last fall, which would be the first since the law was created more than 40 years ago. The problem farming groups and individual farmers have with the changes is not an increased focus on child safety, but that the new rules would affect children’s ability to earn money, work for their families and learn life lessons while training to work in agriculture.
"This is more of an assault on my culture than anything that’s going to solve a problem," said East Summit County rancher and father or four Jeff Young. "I just can’t imagine that riding a horse that’s following a herd of cattle is any more dangerous than skiing or playing football."
Nels Anderson, owner of Heritage Valley Poultry in Summit County and father of two, agreed. "It’s a challenge to maintain a family farm, but it teaches kids responsibility and the value of work. A parent ought to have the right to teach their kids to work." Injury and fatality rates among children working on farms has declined, according to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Safety. From 1998 to 2009, the rate of childhood agricultural injuries which included children who worked on or were visiting a farm declined by 59 percent. The rate of childhood injuries among children living on farms declined by 48 percent over the same period.
"The fatality rate is even lower in Utah compared to the national level," said Utah Farm Bureau Vice President of Farm Safety A.J. Fergusen. " We used to average 18 fatalities in a year in farming and ranching when our safety program began. Now that number is closer to three fatalities a year, and that’s combining any youth or adult incidents."
Rather than regulate, the Utah Farm Bureau Federation believes promoting education.
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"Education is a great stance to take on child labor on farms," he added. "We can reach out and promote safety but in a way that doesn’t implement more regulations."
The proposed changes in the law came after a number of high profile accidents involving children across the country, including the death of a teen in a grain elevator in eastern Colorado.
"Hopefully, this law will open ears about what is actually happening," said Shari Burgus, the education director for Farm Safety 4 Just Kids. "We believe that there is still work to be done."
The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety also supports changes, which would apply to any hired person under 16 years old. The Department of Labor focuses on jobs that research has shown to cause the most injuries and fatalities, such as tractor operation and certain types of work with animals and would exclude children working on family’s farms.
"There’s been a lot of controversy and hesitancy, especially from farmers," Burgus said. "I don’t know how many of them really understand the law There are some things in there that relate to issues that weren’t even around 40 years ago, things like use of cell phones and texting."
The law does cover issues such as cell phone use while operating heavy machinery, but also includes issues such as poultry catching or cooping and herding animals in confined spaces or while on horseback or using an ATV, which are activities children whose parents may work on a ranch might help with.
"I don’t worry about my kids when they’re on a farm, or riding a horse or feeding their animals," Young said. "When I take them into town, I’m worried that they know how to cross the street safely. I know that they understand the farm."
The Department of Labor is currently preparing to release an updated version of the proposed changes following thousands of public comments in support and opposed on the original.