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Tuesday, February 26, 2013 / 11:22 AM

Obama, Missouri Legislators Ignore Child Deaths on Family Farms

Obama, Missouri Legislators Ignore Child Deaths on Family Farms

Farm and ranch workers have one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2010, farming and ranching ranked fourth in accidental deaths, many of which occurred on family farms. The fatality rate in 2010 was 41 deaths for every 100,000 farm works. (2011 figures are listed as “preliminary” at osha.gov; farming ranked sixth.)

This outpaced mining-machine-operating deaths (39 per 100,000), and that included the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. It was America’s worst mining disaster in 40 years.

Despite that information, Senate Bill 16 is progressing through Jefferson City and will most likely become state law before this session ends. It allows children under 16 to perform hazardous duties on family farms with no more than a parents’ permission.

It reads, “This act exempts farm work performed by children under the age of 16 from certain child labor requirements including: the obtaining of a work certificate; hours/days of performance; and certain prohibited hazardous jobs such as operating and maintaining power-driven machinery, climbing ladders, operating vehicles, and working with certain chemicals. This exemption only applies to children working on their own family farms and, when with the knowledge and consent of their parents, the family farms of others.”

Imagine if a family owned a coal mine and a state law was passed allowing children under 16 to work within its dangerous confines—we would all be shocked. But if it’s a family owned farm, it’s all good?

Many farm deaths are caused by tractor rollovers. Another leading cause of death on farms involves accidents in or around grain silos; OSHA figures show that 70 percent of grain entrapment accidents occur on small family farms. And 40 percent of all workplace deaths are teenage farm workers.

According to John Lundell of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of Iowa, most tractor rollover fatalities are preventable. In an interview with CNN/Money, he said that in the United States, only new tractors are required to have rollover protection, and farmers are more likely to devote their old tractors to rougher jobs like mowing around drainage ditches, the very spots where rollovers are more likely to occur.

Denny Banister of the Missouri Farm Bureau agreed in a 2010 article, in which he wrote that “many older tractors are not equipped with roll over protection, and farmers may consider buying add-on roll over protection devices for old tractors an unnecessary expense, even though tractor rollovers are responsible for the majority of accidental deaths on Missouri farms.”

If you are under 16 and your legs are long enough to reach the pedals, the state of Missouri is probably going to say “go for it!”

Fall harvest season is also a dangerous time because farmers and workers are filling silos and bins with crops. Lundell says the grain can get encrusted at the top and workers have to kick it free. If they slip and fall in, workers can die. "It's like quicksand. You quickly become engulfed and there's nothing to grab onto. You get asphyxiated; you drown in the grain," he said.

This would be a horrific way to die for any person; let alone a child under 16. But it could happen to a child without legal consequence because a parent said it is fine to undertake this dangerous task.

In the last 5 years, there have been a total of 80 deaths in silos. Fourteen of those victims were teenage boys. Last fall after two fatalities in a silo in Oklahoma, including the death of a 17-year-old boy, the Department of Labor developed a new set of regulations. They went nowhere, in part, because they were too restrictive.

Rena Seinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, is part of nationwide effort to protect children from accidental farm deaths. She recently wrote to President Obama telling him “I’m very frustrated and disgusted with the White House.”

“The rules proposed by the Department of Labor were too broad, and ended up prohibiting minors from doing basic chores on their family’s farms. What has people enraged is your unwillingness to work with the department and farmers to make revisions."

Congress unanimously stopped the pursuit of new rules and the president said, “This regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

It probably will not happen often; but let the record show it happened once. President Obama and Missouri legislators are in agreement—and it could put children in harm's way on family farms.

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