Historically, family farms involved men, women and children — yes, children. Boys and girls from an early age worked with animals (sometimes got kicked) and worked with machinery (sometimes were hurt even worse). According to the Department of Labor, the fatality rate for children working in agriculture was four times higher than children working in all other industries combined.
While this page does not dispute those figures, few industries that employ children have so many risky tasks that children perform as those found on the farm. Agriculture, quite simply, is a special case.
How special it is was revealed last year when the U.S. Labor Department proposed to revise child-labor regulations that would have limited the sort of farm work a child under 16 could do. Well-meaning though it was, the effort created a complex crisscrossing of rules and regulations including a “parental exemption” that would have negated many of the revisions being proposed. After an outcry from farm groups and members of Congress representing agricultural interests, the secretary of Labor withdrew the plan.
Keeping children safe is important, but nothing short of prohibiting children from working on a farm is going to prevent accidents. The ultimate responsibility for the safety of a child resides in the parents or employer, and on a family farm that is the only way someone in their teens or younger can be kept out of harm’s way.
If a child is injured through the negligence of an adult — parent or employer — law enforcement should get involved. However, imposing age limits on activities where it isn’t clear that age is a contributing factor and providing a loophole that makes rules even less effective seems to defeat the whole purpose.
It is good that the Labor Department withdrew the revisions. If the topic is revisited, there should be more input from the parties that called for the revisions’ repeal.