Children growing up on or around farms and ranches have been participating in agricultural work for thousands of years. With that in mind, the U.S. Department of Labor should rethink its proposal to change child labor laws to restrict how minors can work in agriculture. It goes too far and could seriously harm some of the healthiest and most wholesome activities available to American youths.
That is not to say the feds hearts are in the wrong place. Agricultural work can be dangerous. It routinely involves powerful machines, sharp tools andlarge animals. Throw in long hours and hard work, and accidents can happen.
But ag work also typically involves people with multigenerational experience and heartfelt concern for the quality and safety of the work. Plus, the boss often carries another title, as well, one such as mom or dad.
There is a difference between someone getting a job in the workforce and a child helping his or her family around the farm. That distinction should still hold if it is a buddys family or a friend down the road.
In the first case, workplace rules, safety regulations, withholding taxes, insurance requirements and all the red tape of modern life rightly apply. The other examples are governed by common sense and the more general laws of a civilized society.
The proposed rules, however, would allow anyone younger than 15 to work only on their parents farm. It would forbid them from being around sexually mature livestock such as bulls or nursing cows. It would forbid children younger than 16 from driving most power equipment and require nonagricultural workers at grain elevators, silos and livestock auctions be at least 18.
Some of that makes sense. Grain elevators can be dangerous. An example cited in support of the proposed rules was the death of a 17-year-old who suffocated in a grain bin in southeast Colorado in 2009. A grain elevator in Kansas exploded last month, killing six people although the youngest was 20.
But those were commercial operations already subject to all kinds of rules. Penalties of more than $500,000 have been levied against the firm where the 17-year-old died.
What the proposed new rules would do is threaten a lot of the neighborly generosity by limiting who could help out with agriculture-related tasks. And with that they could be a disaster for programs such as 4-H and FFA.
That is an effect the rules backers clearly did not think through. As a spokesman for the Colorado Farm Bureau put it, In D.C., they really dont understand they are trying to stop what are common practices out here.
Agricultural work is at the heart of 4-H and FFA. And it is not limited to small or baby animals. No doubt there are occasional injuries.
But as anyone who has ever been involved with 4-H or FFA can attest, those programs have a strong emphasis on safety and take care to teach the proper handling of tools and livestock. That they also teach character and help shape kids into exemplary young adults reflects and reinforces that approach.
Endangering those programs would be justified only by a demonstrated level of danger that is simply not in evidence.
The Department of Labor has agreed to hold off on the proposed rules until Dec. 1. It should instead put them off indefinitely until they can be revised to fit rural reality.