Every year many children and teenagers work in the fields, doing their part in sustaining their families. Due to the lack of recent data it is difficult to determine the exact number; however, it is estimated that 500,000 youths under the age of 18 work in agricultural settings.
Although there are child labor laws, children in agriculture are the least protected by law compared to other sectors. The law states that youth 12 or 13 years of age can work in agriculture on a farm only if a parent has given written permission or is working on the same farm. Also by law, youths 14- or 15-years-old can work in agriculture, on any farm, but only during hours when school is not in session and only in non-hazardous jobs. But what is considered a non-hazardous job? Aren’t pesticide exposure, sharp scissors, and machetes dangerous?
No matter the age, agricultural labor is still considered one of the most hazardous jobs in the US. According to NIOSH, an estimated 907 youth died on U.S. farms between 1997 through 2002, with most fatalities occurring to youth 16-19 years of age. About 23% percent of these deaths involved heavy machinery such as tractors, 19% involved motor vehicles such as ATVs, and 16% were due to drowning. In 2006, farmworker youth between the ages of 10 and 15 years had the highest rate of injury.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture published 2006-2013 data on farmworker youth:
- Over half of all household youths performed work or chores on the farm
- 307,000 youths were hired to do work on U.S. farms
- Approximately 3,026 injuries (26%) occurred to children under 10 years of age living on farms
- Nearly half of all injuries occurred to children between 10 and 15 years of age
- Nearly 75% of injured children were not actively working when the injury occurred
- Falls accounted for 40% of all household youth injuries
- Common causes of injury were animals (20%) and vehicles (17%)
- ATVs were the most common vehicle involved in household youth injury (66%)
- Youth in livestock operations had a much higher rate of injury (11.9 injuries/1,000 youth) compared to those in crop operations (8.4 injuries/1,000 youth)
Federal law establishes safety standards and restrictions for young workers on farms. The following agricultural tasks have been declared hazardous:
- Operating a tractor over 20 PTO horsepower, or connecting or disconnecting its implements
- Operating or assisting operation of a corn picker, grain combine, and more as listed here
- Operating or working with earthmoving equipment, fork lift, or power-driven saw
- Working in a space occupied by a bull, boar, or stud horse maintained for breeding purposes;
- Driving an automobile to transport passengers, or riding on a tractor as a passenger or helper;
- Working inside a storage area designed to retain an oxygen-deficient or toxic atmosphere
- Handling or applying toxic chemicals identified by the words “danger,” “poison,” or “warning” or a skull-and-crossbones on the label
- Working with anhydrous ammonia.
It is important that farmworker parents and employers know the law before sending youth to work. Teen agricultural employees have the right to:
- receive health and safety trainings
- work the legal amount of hours
- receive legally adequate compensation
- receive workers compensation in case of an injury or sickness
- access to field sanitation including handwashing facilities, toilets, and potable drinking water
- request help and/or additional training when taking on an unfamiliar task or experiencing difficulty with any specific task
Although laws are never perfect, congress should revise the law in place and provide equal protection to every working youth. The double-standard in child labor laws should be eliminated, and apply the same rule regardless the type of work a youth is doing. Until our laws are improved and enforced, we will continue to put children and youth at risk.
- Click here to learn more about Child Labor Laws
- Click here to download the DOL’s Agricultural Employer’s Pocket Guide on Youth Employment