In a recent article detailing the safety risks faced by underage farm workers, New York Times journalist John Broder examines thwarted efforts to broaden farm labor regulations after reports of silo, bin and grain elevator fatalities at both large commercial enterprises and smaller family operations not currently covered by federal law. “Experts say the continuing rate of silo deaths is due in part to the huge amount of corn being produced and stored in the United States to meet the global demand for food, feed and, increasingly, ethanolbased fuel,” writes Broder. “That the deaths persist reveals continuing flaws in the enforcement of worker safety laws and weaknesses in rules meant to protect the youngest farm workers. Nearly 20 percent of all serious grain bin accidents involve workers under the age of 20.”
In particular, the article describes agricultural child labor rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that not only would have “barred young workers from entering silos and other enclosed spaces,” but would have prohibited teenagers “from doing a broad array of farm tasks, including herding livestock and driving large farm vehicles.” But after receiving complaints from farming communities and pressure from embattled politicians in agricultural states, DOL eventually withdrew the proposals despite protests from farm worker advocacy groups. “They needed to address new technology and new equipment,” said Purdue University Agricultural and Biological Engineering Professor William Field, who viewed DOL’s failure as a squandered opportunity. “But in my mind, the Department of Labor, or whoever was pushing it, took it as an opportunity to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at this thing.”Additional details about the proposed regulations and their subsequent withdrawal appear in Issues 425 and 438 of this Update.