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Last September, the US Department of Labor issued a notice of proposed rule making seeking to limit the ability of young workers to get farming experience, ostensibly for the safety of these workers. The National Ag Law Center examined the rule in this report issued last year. While I do not necessarily agree with their conclusions, the legal analysis in the report seems otherwise sound.
The proposed rule is still on track to be finalized this August, with the potential for minor revisions from the original proposed rule to add partial ownership of an ag operation to the parental exemption. (Under the proposed rule, kids could work on a farm under the parental exemption only if the farm was wholly owned by their parents; the proposed amendment would allow them to work on a farm that is partially owned by their parents.)
Perhaps the Labor Department should have consulted safety stats from other federal agencies before issuing a rule restricting agricultural youth workers on the stated basis of youth worker safety. As it turns out, according to this recent USDA report, injuries among young agricultural workers are DOWN – in fact, they have been cut nearly in half. I’m glad to hear it, but it doesn’t surprise me.
I’m a farm kid. I am blessed to have grown up in a small home on my grandparents’ farm. Being a farm kid, I had farm-related chores to do, including feeding and cleaning up after livestock, planting and weeding the immense garden, helping plant and harvest crops, helping my grandfather with upkeep on farm buildings, and miscellaneous other chores. I recognize the value of this experience to developing my work ethic, time management, and practical skills.
The only thing I “farm” these days is my organic vegetable garden. But, even as a lawyer, I benefited immensely from the rich farming heritage I grew up with. Sadly, under the federal government’s “benevolent” rule-making, fewer kids will get the chance to do the same.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did once get injured in a (sort of) farm-related activity. When I was 11 years old, I was riding in the cab of a pickup truck hauling grain across rural roads. Somehow, the door of the cab flew open (my clothing probably caught on the door handle), I fell out onto my noggin, and experienced serious head trauma. (Those who know me now think that explains a lot about me . . . but I digress). That rather freak occurrence seems only tangentially farm-related, though, given that I was in an ordinary pickup truck driven over the roads without a seat belt (they were not used much in those days). The only thing farm-related about it is that the truck was hauling a load of grain from the field to the farm.
But, I was otherwise free of serious injuries growing up, despite spending my days around powerful machinery and large livestock (beef cattle, milk cows, and pigs). The machinery had power take-offs, innumerable moving parts, blades of various sizes, and other potential horrors. The livestock was immense - especially from a child’s perspective – and often ornery. But my elders taught me how to deal with both.
A standard feature of the rural Midwestern agricultural community I grew up in was story-telling. Adults were particularly fond of regaling us kids with stories of people who had lost various body parts (or even their lives) in farm machinery or who had been seriously injured by large farm animals. I learned of neighbors who had lost fingers or arms in power take-off equipment, others who had been run down by bulls or boars, and various other delightful tales of the potential effects of not being fully safety-conscious. Through these stories, we were taught to respect the power of machines and animals, as well as how to safely operate and be around them. I credit my current safety-consciousness with the respect for dangerous equipment and tools I was taught as a kid.
Given this rich heritage, I was extremely disheartened to learn that our federal government thought it wise to restrict young people from working on farms not owned by their parents. It seems to me that the good fortune of being born to farmers should not mean that other kids are prohibited from getting the opportunity to benefit from farming. It makes me sad to think of the federal government meddling in this and not allowing kids the same opportunities I had, ostensibly for fear of the young people’s safety.
This pants-wetting over young people being near dangerous equipment is precisely backwards. It was through the experience of being near this equipment that I learned to respect its power and that I became as safety-conscious as I currently am. Doesn’t it make more sense for young people to learn about dangerous equipment and livestock under the supervision of adults who will teach them to respect and even fear their power, rather than send them into adulthood with no real idea of how to be safe around them?
And, really, when you consider the types of law practiced by other lawyers out there, is it really possible to believe that even the most heartless farmer does not have EVERY interest in ensuring the safety of their young charges, if for no other reason than to avoid liability?
Not to mention that the youth of today are not as active as even the non-farming youth of yesteryear. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said it well, in her letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, in response to the notice of proposed rule-making:
In an era of sedentary lifestyles, i.e.; computers, video games, all access TV and poor eating habits in the United States, this policy to restrain and/or limit on-farm employment of young people is very misguided. The youth of America would benefit greatly from working on the farm, in the open air, learning about animals, crops, and wildlife. Hauling hay, riding horses, sorting cattle and driving tractors have been a learning foundation for many of our nation’s most successful citizens. Any policy that would hinder the opportunities of young Americans to experience life in our agricultural communities is misguided indeed. Our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are much more able to determine and teach farm safety to our youth than government officials in Washington DC. Farm safety classes are available in communities all across our state.
The youth of America are facing many challenges today. We believe working outside, in agriculture, on a farm could be the best remedy for this generation.
So, what will the Department of Labor do with these stats and the extensive comments they received in opposition to their proposed rule? Probably nothing. This is just one more example of how the government, in its paternalistic and bureaucratic wisdom, thinks it knows best.
A final word on safety. As set forth above, farmers already have an interest in ensuring the safety of everyone on their property. Also, while safety is one important value, there are other competing values, like developing a strong work ethic, participating meaningfully in a community, learning, growing, producing, playing, and thriving; there is no way to ensure perfect safety while also promoting these values.
A ship in port is safe; but that’s not what ships were built for. – Grace Murray Hopper
Similarly, a kid on a couch may “safe” (from physical injury, anyway) . . . but, surely it’s not what she was “built for” - i.e., designed to do.
- The Real Food Lawyer