Changes for children down on the farm

Labor Department rules revision would limit work hired kids could do

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Farming is a dangerous way to make a living.

Livestock can be unpredictable and injure their caregivers; farmers use heavy machinery that can tip and crush them; and even silos that store grain can become death traps that suffocate workers.

Each year, according to the National Child Labor Coalition, 30 children are killed working on farms (12 of those are hired help).

The Washington, D.C.-based coalition of unions, child-welfare organizations and human rights groups noted in testimony presented to support tighter regulations, "In 2006, an estimated 5,800 children and adolescents were injured while performing farm work. Every summer young farm workers are run over or lose limbs to tractors and machinery. Heat stress and pesticides pose grave dangers."

A proposed revision in U.S. Department of Labor rules would greatly restrict what children under the age of 16 would be allowed to do on a farm. And many farmers are not welcoming the changes.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, a coalition of 70 farming organizations based in Washington, D.C., has argued the labor department is overreaching its authority and the prohibition on power-driven machines could be read to include electric screwdrivers.

Under the proposal, children under age 16 would no longer would be allowed to drive most tractors or farm equipment or handle mature livestock such as uncastrated bulls, sows with suckling pigs or cows with a newborn calf present that still has an umbilical cord. Workers under 16 also would kept from working in grain silos, feed lots or livestock auctions, handling pesticides or working on a ladder, tower, roof, scaffold or machine more than 6 feet above the ground.

Young workers also would be prohibited from removing stumps, other than by manual means, or from working in any form of animal husbandry that could cause pain, and hence a violent reaction, from livestock, including dehorning, vaccinating or castrating animals.

The comment period on the rules ended Dec. 1 and farmers are waiting to see which of the proposed rules are implemented.

Locally, young people who work on farms are often the farmers' children and thus exempt from the rules. There are 63,200 farms in the state covering 28.6 million acres, more than a quarter of the state. Last year Pennsylvania farming was an almost $2 billion industry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On the Dillner farm, a West Deer vegetable farm, for instance, 14-year-old Joseph Dillner drives a tractor as members of the family have since they started farming there in the 1940s. That would be prohibited if he were a non-family member who was hired by the farm. Joseph uses the tractor to carry the round bales of hay that his family uses as mulch in their fields.

It's a job that his 17-year-old sister, Marie, is not comfortable doing, said Jane Dillner, their mother.

"It's not a big tractor, just a John Deere 970," she said. It's one of the smaller tractors the company sells, but still has 50 percent more power than children would be allowed to operate in the regulations.

Another part of the proposed regulations that raised the hackles of Finleyville farmer Tim Trax prohibits young people from riding on farm equipment over public roads without a seat and seat belt.

What that means is that when the crew of young people at Trax Farms moves from one field to another, the workers can't pile onto a farm wagon. Instead they have to be moved in a vehicle equipped with seats and seat belts.

Mr. Trax said the workers travel at most about half a mile on the public road to get to a field.

"Sounds like the feds are fixing things that don't need to be fixed again," he said, adding that he has never heard of an accident involving a trailer of workers and a car.

Other parts of the proposed regulations would not affect his farm. "I don't let kids under 16 years old drive. I want them to be able to reach the pedals," he joked.

Reid Maki, coordinator of the National Child Labor Coalition, said the proposed regulations bring farms in line with other industries in protecting children. "The department has a responsibility to protect these kids," he said.

A labor department news release recently reported the department had settled a case against a company that ran a grain bin in Illinois. Two workers, 14 and 19 years old, were killed.

The two were "walking down the corn," a procedure which makes the corn flow more easily through the machinery. Both teen workers were trapped in corn more than 30 feet deep and suffocated. A third worker was seriously injured.

The company will pay $200,000 in fines.

The new regulations, Mr. Maki said, "would eliminate certain activities we know are dangerous."

Soergel's farm has a market in Franklin Park and fields in Butler County. Reed Soergel, one of the members of the family that runs the farm, remembers the children in his generation started work when they were pre-teens. Mostly they did the manual labor of hoeing the fields while his father drove the tractor.

"We don't have any kids in the fields running any equipment," he said.

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699. First Published December 13, 2011 5:00 AM


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