Long in the works, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is set to release proposed updates to child labor regulations aimed at safety concerns in agriculture-related jobs.

DOL officials -- who claim the fatality rate for teenagers working in agriculture is four times greater than the risk for the average working teenager -- say the proposals will not impact current exemptions for children of farmers working on family operations.

Exemptions for such children are "legislative and nothing in (these new regulations) would disturb that particular legislative provision,” said Michael Hancock, DOL Assistant Administrator for Policy, during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

For other farm-working youths, however, the proposed rules – which have not been updated since the 1970 Fair Labor Standards Act – would add new restrictions and flat-out bans. Among them:

  • Strengthening of current child labor regulations prohibiting agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins.
  • Prohibition of youths at country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

During the work-up of the new rules “It became apparent there were hazards in grain bins and other enclosed spaces where children were working both on farms and off,” said Hancock. “There have been a number of fairly high-profile incidents involving children through engulfment or other tragic injuries and accidents. So, we saw this as an opportunity to also propose rules for grain bins and other such structures.”

Prompted by later questions, Hancock said the new rules “would essentially preclude kids under 18 from being on the premises of a commercial grain elevator.” While previous regulations attempted to address such situations “there was never any broad, sweeping prohibition on kids working in a grain elevator. It had to be specific -- like working with an augur or lift. We’ve concluded in grain elevators there are too many hazards and kids shouldn’t be present in that work place.”

  • Prohibition of those under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.
  • Prohibition of youth in both agricultural and nonagricultural employment from using electronic, including communication, devices while operating power-driven equipment.

“’Distracted driving’,” said Hancock, “was becoming a major issue that the Department of Transportation and DOL were interested in trying to address. We thought this was an opportunity to propose a regulation that affects not (only) children working on farms but also children employed in non-agricultural occupations.

“We thought it was worth the time and effort to pull the rule back and add additional provisions dealing with distracted driving.”

  • Prohibition of those under 16 years old from operating almost all power-driven equipment. A limited exemption would permit some student learners to operate certain farm implements and tractors, when equipped with proper rollover protection structures and seat belts, under specified conditions.

Hancock: “There are a number different changes and additions that deal with farm equipment generally – whether tractors or other power-driven machinery that we’ve concluded present an unacceptable risk to children.

In the proposed rules “we’ve identified a number of very specific implements in the work place that present an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to children. In most cases, they’ll be precluded from working around those implements.

“There is a small window that still exists for children in a legitimate training/student learner program. That will allow them, under close supervision and after sufficient training, to continue to work with things like tractors.”

According to a DOL press release, it is also proposing to create “a new nonagricultural hazardous occupations order that would prevent children under 18 from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials.”