The debate over whether the government protects people exposed to industrial hazards enough—or whether it engages in ruinous “overregulation”—is only occasionally coherent. Sometimes it’s downright bizarre, and never is it for the faint of heart. Consider the case of kids working on farms. Following a series of gruesome accidents involving teenagers as young as 14 who were smothered in grain elevators or lost legs to giant augers used to shovel crops into storage silos, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced a proposal in September to tighten prohibitions on children doing such dangerous work. Existing rules have proven shockingly ineffective: the fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times greater than for their peers in other workplaces. They were written four decades ago, before many of the machines and methods now commonplace on today’s farms were developed.
The new rules would exempt children working with their parents on a true family farm (DOL last week made the exemptions even broader). They would also allow kids to raise animals for 4-H competitions and enroll in vocational training programs. They would prohibit children 15 years old and younger from operating tractors, augers, and other hazardous farm equipment, much as their peers off-the-farm cannot drive cars alone. Teens younger than 18 could not work inside grain elevators. Children could not work for money on tobacco farms because they are especially vulnerable to a form of nicotine poisoning known as “green tobacco sickness,” caused by dermal absorption of moisture that pools on the leaves. DOL received more than 10,000 comments on the rule, and is considering revisions through the normal, if excessively lengthy, administrative process.
Last week, the House Small Business Committee’s Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy, and Trade held a hearing that gave agribusiness and Republican members ample opportunity (witnesses against: 4, witness in favor: 1) to excoriate these protections on the grounds that they would end “family” farming as we know it. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, threatened to attach a rider to the Labor Department’s appropriation bill to stop the new protections. The justification? They might prohibit him from hiring his 10-year-old neighbor to herd cashmere goats by riding a Kawasaki “youth” motorcycle after the undoubtedly startled critters.
“I think you’re sitting around watching reruns of ‘Blazing Saddles’ and that’s your interpretation of what goes on in the West,” the self-described fifth generation rancher turned Member of Congress condescended in the direction of DOL deputy wage and hour administrator Nancy Leppink.
Other witnesses at the hearing, provocatively entitled “The Future of the Family Farm: The Effect of Proposed DOL Regulations on Small Business Producers,” told stories about how rewarding it was for their children to feed baby calves, milk cows, and help their parents heft large bales of hay high up into the barn, coming of age in the process. None of these activities would be prohibited by the rule, of course, provided the child was actually helping her parents, and not working for minimum wage at a corporate farm. But imagine for a moment if a factory worker came to testify about how much it developed a child’s self-respect to spend 12 hours a day in a sweat shop, pretending that the experience was equivalent to helping grandma do needlework. There are still countries in the world that put children to work under such circumstances. But the United States made it illegal 74 years ago.
And while we are on the subject, how about those small family farms that evoke such romantic nostalgia? Like the Fortune 100 companies who find it so convenient to hide behind the skirts of small business in the larger crusade against regulation, modern agribusiness likes to propagate a myth about modern farming that bears little relationship to reality. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, large-scale (annual income greater than $250,000) family and non-family farms account for 12 percent of some 2.2 million farms in the country, but produce 84 percent of the value of production. Some 37 percent of very large family farms and 13 percent of nonfamily farms are “million-dollar farms” with annual sales of $1 million or more; only 47,600 farms fall in this category—2 percent of all U.S. farms, but they account for 53 percent of production.
But the numbers alone can’t combat that intriguing image of the gleeful 10-year-old herding goats on a motorcycle. To understand the true significance of these rules—disgracefully, they were held up within the White House for nine months, sending the strong signal that the President does not care about their fate—an equally vivid counter-image may be helpful. It comes from the testimony of Catherine Rylatt, aunt of Alex Pacas, a 19-year-old who died in the grain elevator incident mentioned earlier.
Four young people were sent into a grain bin one day to “walk the corn,” a euphemism for smashing clumps apart with their feet; in addition to Pacas, Will Piper, 20, Wyatt Whitebread, 14, and Chris Lawton, 15, were part of the crew. The two youngest boys had the idea that they could break up the corn more easily by sliding down it, not realizing that the corn “crusts” form a seemingly solid bridge but that a hollow pocket lies beneath it. The crust broke, and Whitebread started sinking into the corn. He smothered, as did Pacas who tried to save him. Unfortunately, inept operators outside the bin had turned on augers that bring the grain down—a dangerous practice when people are inside it. The boys were paid in cash, had never been trained, and were not given the harnesses required for safety. The company that owned the elevator sold it without ever issuing a public statement of regret.
No amount of lopsided congressional hearings and outnumbered witnesses can obscure the facts. Agricultural workers are four times more likely to be killed on the job than other workers. The rules protecting the health of our working rural children and citizens need to be updated and strengthened. Better safeguards—improved jobs, fewer injuries—are the best way to honor family farms and rural America for all the hard work they do on behalf of our country.