There are approximately two million farms in the U.S. and 893,000 youth living on them. Just more than half of these young people work on the farm where they live. According to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, about every three days a child dies from an agriculture-related incident. The leading sources of youth fatalities on farms are machinery, motor vehicles (including ATVs), and drowning. About 33 children are injured in agriculture-related incidents each day, and 2016 NIOSH data found that youth working on farms were 7.8 times more likely to be fatally injured when compared with youth working in all other industries combined.
The data also show that simply living on a farm puts youth at risk. In 2014, an estimated 7,500 youth were injured on a farm, and 60 percent of them were not working when the injury occurred. Nonetheless, farms and ranches are vital parts of U.S. communities—both for food production and as a way of life for many Americans raising the next generation of farmers. So what is the best way to prevent injury and ensure safety on the most dangerous worksites in the U.S. for children?
While the Fair Labor Standards Act does impose child labor requirements in agricultural occupations, it does not extend these requirements to family-run agricultural work environments, exempting children who work on their parents’ farms. Under federal law, children as young as age 12 can work seven days a week outside of school hours picking fruits and vegetables; child labor restrictions that exist to protect children working in other industries don’t apply to agriculture.
In 1998—more than 21 years ago—the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine recommended establishing a minimum age of 18 years for all hazardous work regardless of the setting (agricultural or nonagricultural), and compulsory compliance with the Hazardous Occupations Orders (regulations on occupations that are considered to be hazardous for youth workers), regardless of “whether the minor is employed by a stranger or by a parent or other person standing in for the parent.” While state laws may impose more restrictive child labor rules, federal law still allows 14- and 15- year-olds to work in hazardous conditions under certain circumstances. Even where states have passed laws to protect child workers on farms, many argue that enforcement is “spotty” at best.
Research has shown that many agriculture-related injuries occur when the youth’s abilities are not appropriately matched to the tasks required. The Agricultural Youth Work Guidelines provide evidence-based best practices to determine if youth can safely do the job, what supervision is needed, the adult responsibilities associated with youth completing this work, potential hazards, and protective strategies. In developing these guidelines, the National Children’s Center consulted with farmers to ensure the guidelines would work in practice, important buy-in that has given the guidelines credibility in the agricultural community.
In the absence of nationwide legislative solutions, there are several free, publicly-available online tools for farmers, workers, and agritourism operators. For example, AgInjuryNews is a real-time database of agriculture-related injury reports from around the world; Safe Return To Work is a tool for farmers and clinicians to use to recommend light duty return to work job assemblies for all injured/ill workers; and Farm Mapper assists farmers with creating an overhead view of the property using icons to note the position of important items like water sources, hazards, access points, livestock, etc. This information is immediately available to first responders to access en route to an emergency, allowing them to safely and efficiently respond to a farm emergency.
While these resources are helpful, creative legal and policy solutions, enforcement of and guidelines on existing regulations, and education are still needed to ensure the safety of children and adolescents living and working on farms.
This post was written by Megan Griest, MPP, Chief of Staff, Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region Office with assistance from Kerri McGowan Lowrey, JD, MPH, Deputy Director, Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region Office. The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.