MILWAUKEE — Shelly Mayer says she would never do anything to put her three children in harm’s way on their family dairy farm, but she worries that proposed regulations could put an end to many jobs for farm kids.
As Americans, Mayer says, we are too protective of our children when it comes to physical labor.
“We have raised a generation of ‘bubble-wrap’ babies,” she says.
“Parents dote so much on kids, they practically need an oxygen mask to go outside. And we wonder why they can’t function in society.”
Mayer and her husband, Dwight, have children ages 15, 13 and 8 on their farm near Slinger, Wis. They are among farmers nationwide who believe proposed U.S. Department of Labor regulations go too far in restricting what work kids could perform on farms, such as driving tractors and handling livestock.
The changes, they say, could dampen kids’ enthusiasm for becoming farmers, especially youngsters who don’t live on farms but have part-time jobs to gain farming experience.
Under the proposed rules, according to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, someone under 18 would not be allowed to do many chores for a neighbor or even their own family’s farm if it’s set up as a corporation or a business partnership. Today, many family farms are legally structured as corporations or partnerships.
“It could take away a lot of opportunity,” said Mayer, who also is executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.
Under the proposed regulations:
• Anyone under age 16 could not operate any power-driven machines unless the child was under the supervision of a parent or guardian.
• Youngsters would be prohibited from handling noncastrated livestock older than six months, sows with suckling pigs or cows with newborn calves. They also could not be in situations where an animal’s behavior might be unpredictable, such as giving shots, dehorning or breeding.
• Youngsters would not be allowed to work inside any grain silo, fruit or forage storage bin, nor would they be allowed to handle pesticides. Also, they would not be allowed to work at heights above 6 feet from a floor, including working on ladders.
• The new regulations would prohibit teenagers from talking on cellphones or texting while operating a tractor.
After receiving thousands of public comments on its proposed regulations, the Department of Labor extended the comment period to Dec. 1.
It will now move forward with a rule-making process.
Nationwide, a child is killed in an agricultural work site every 3½ days, and 41 young people suffer serious farm injuries each day, according to data through 2009 from the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.
“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” the Labor Department says on its website. “The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times greater than that of their peers employed in nonagricultural workplaces.”
It has been more than 40 years since the Department of Labor updated child labor regulations for farms.
Farming has changed considerably in that time, with bigger tractors and other machinery that are a common cause of accidents and deaths.
It’s time to update the regulations, according to the Department of Labor.
Children who work on their parents’ farms are exempt from child labor laws, and they would remain exempt under the proposed regulation changes. They can perform any tasks, even dangerous ones, at any age on a farm owned or operated by a parent, according to the Department of Labor.
Removing the family-farm exemption would help prevent the most serious farm-youth injuries, according to Barbara Lee, director of the National Farm Medicine Center, in Marshfield, Wis.
“We need to think about the kids first,” she said. “If you ask any parent whose child was killed in a farm accident, or who had a limb amputated, they would give anything to take that moment back. The injuries and deaths for children in agriculture are really gruesome and traumatic.”
Farming is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations.
But while 81 percent of farm parents perceive the work to be more dangerous than other occupations, only 66 percent of those parents felt it was more dangerous for children to work on a farm than at other jobs, according to National Farm Medicine Center research.
Out in the field
Since she was about 7 years old, Addy Gonzales has been taught how to handle animals on her family’s dairy farm near Elkhorn.
Now 14, she helps her mother and father with farm chores, provided it’s not dangerous work and she has adult supervision.
“She would never be alone doing anything on the farm, even around the cows, because things can happen quick,” said her mother, Kim Gonzales.
Addy drives a skid-steer loader that hauls manure.
“Me and my dad will clean out the barn,” she said. “We will pitch out the poop, and I will drive the skid-steer out to the poop pile. I feel comfortable doing that stuff, but I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable driving a big combine or something like that.”
Currently, it’s legal for children as young as 12 to put their lives in danger by working in agriculture, said Justin Feldman, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
A spate of farm accidents during a three-week period last summer left two teens dead and three more in critical condition, including two 17-year-old Oklahoma boys who had their legs crushed in a grain elevator.
Two 14-year-old girls died while working in a cornfield in Illinois.
Incidents like these underscore the need for stricter regulations, Feldman said.
But taking away opportunities for teens isn’t the answer, said Cheryl Zimmerman, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of the National FFA Organization.
“We know that agriculture is a dangerous industry, and we need to continually educate people on safety,” Zimmerman said.
The changes threaten to dramatically change the face of the family farm, added Bill Bruins, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
Mayer, from Slinger, says it’s ironic that farm work is painted as being so risky, while kids off the farm are exposed to many dangers, including drugs and unsupervised time.
“Is working on a farm the most dangerous situation? I don’t think so,” Mayer said.