Controversy Rages Over Farm Safety Rules For Teens
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're turning to this country now. The Obama administration has scrapped an effort to introduce new safety regulations designed to protect the tens of thousands of young people who work in agriculture. Many farmers are applauding the decision to shelve the rules, calling it a victory for their rural way of life. But safety experts say more teens under the age of 16 die each year working on farms than in all other industries combined. With the presidential election just six months away, supporters and critics alike agree the proposed rules were simply too controversial.
North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has our story.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR ENGINE)
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Sam Kilpatrick is driving a tractor on his family's farm in Granville, New York. This is a big machine worth tens of thousands of dollars and it's rigged with seats, slung just behind the massive rear tires. Two women perch there, planting onions as Sam inches the machine forward.
SAM KILPATRICK: I love working on the farm, and tractors - they're pretty fun. If you're doing it by yourself, sometimes you can use like an iPod or something to make it go faster. But when I'm doing this kind of work, since I'm communicating with people behind me, I don't want to be distracted with something else.
MANN: That's a lot of responsibility, and Sam is just 17 years old. He's been driving tractors and mowers since he was 15.
KILPATRICK: I've grown up around tractors, so I kind of have the, you know, the safety issues.
MANN: On farms like this, it's common for teens to take the wheel of a big tractor or combine. But safety experts say roughly two dozen teenagers die on farms in work-related accidents every year.
In 2009, the last year statistics were available, 3,800 kids - most of them teenagers - were also seriously injured working on farms. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control.
John Myers is a researcher with the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. He says kids working in agriculture still face levels of injury and death that were eliminated from other industries by child labor laws decades ago.
JOHN MYERS: The numbers are just so out of line compared to other industries. It's just really - it's hard to ignore them.
MANN: The Obama administration initially agreed. Last year, the Labor Department began developing new regulations that would keep kids under the age of 16 away from heavy livestock, chemicals and pesticides, and big machinery.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis defended the effort before a congressional panel this spring in Washington.
SECRETARY HILDA SOLIS: But I do know that we have to protect and prevent any further injuries from young people that are working in settings that are not protected. We haven't upgraded the rule for 40 years.
MANN: But the effort infuriated farmers and their supporters in Congress, Democrats and Republicans. They argued that it made no sense to compare farms with fast food restaurants and retail outlets - the kind of places most teens work.
At that hearing, Senator Jerry Moran from Kansas blasted Solis, describing the regulations as an attack on farming and a traditional way of life.
SENATOR JERRY MORAN: If the federal government can regulate the kind of relationship between parents and their children on their own family's farm, there is almost nothing off-limit in which we see the federal government intruding in a way of life.
MANN: The Labor Department tried to address those concerns by promising to exempt children who work on farms owned by their own families. The new rules would only have affected the teenagers who work as paid employees, including children of migrant workers. That didn't satisfy farmers and late last month the Obama administration abruptly withdrew the regulations.
CELESTE MONFORTON: One of my suspicions and the suspicions of my colleagues is that this was really highly influenced by the Obama campaign.
MANN: Celeste Monforton spent 10 years at the Labor Department. She's a workplace safety expert and teaches now at George Washington University. She says it's unprecedented for a rule-making process to be shut down so abruptly.
In the days after the regulations were scrapped, the Labor Department removed a large number of documents from its website that had been used to justify the new rules - including one document stating that injuries to children are definitely a problem in agriculture.
MONFORTON: The whole issue is just gone. It's as if the hazards for the children magically do not exist any longer.
MANN: Farmers, meanwhile, applauded the Obama administration's retreat on the safety rules. Many, like Michael Kilpatrick, share the view that the move was political.
MICHAEL KILPATRICK: Well, I know an election's coming up, for one thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MANN: Kilpatrick manages his family farm here in Granville. He describes himself in political terms as a libertarian and says the government had no place trying to meddle in operations like his.
The Labor Department didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story. But they did release a strongly worded statement, promising farmers that new child safety rules, and this is a quote, "will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration."
For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in upstate New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.