THE Hazardous Occupations Orders for Agricultural Employment hasn't been changed for the past 40 years. An update of federal labor regulations governing youth employment could mean significant changes in the types of work young people can do on the farm.
In September, the Labor Department notified farmers that they would have 60 days to express any concerns over new guidelines nearly 100-pages long that limit how teens can work in agricultural settings. The original comment closing period was to end Nov. 1, but was then extended another 30 days until Dec. 1, 2011.
Dee Jepsen, assistant professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, explained the hazardous occupations order for agriculture prohibits youth under the age of 16 from working in and around certain types of environments, outside two basic exemptions.
One of the two exemptions historically allowed for in the order included allowing children to work on farms owned and operated by their parents. When the parental exemption was originally written it was broad and perhaps reflective of the typical farm structure at that time. The kinds of family farms, and legal structure of farms, have drastically changed in the past 50 years; the parental exemption is not - and should not be implied to be a "family farm" exemption, Jepsen warned.
“This is an area that could use additional clarification, and possible changes to reflect the types of farms teens are working. This is not currently proposed to be changed. But maybe this is an area that further discussion is needed so that children working for uncles, grandparents, and other family members understand they are not in a ‘family farm’ exemption status,” she said.
Jepsen explained that if two brothers farm together and have formed a limited liability company, a child no longer meets the parent exemption because the farm has a different structure. The individual could also be taking directives from another family partner, which doesn’t qualify under the exemption.
The second traditional exemption was for children under the age of 16 who completed a prescribed farm safety education and training program.
The major changes in the proposed rule pertain to tractor-safety certification programs. Students aged 14 and 15 would take a safety course through Extension or their high school agricultural class involving 24 hours of coursework prior to an exam and skills test to learn about safety procedures. The proposed regulation would expand the program requirement to 90 hours of study prior to an examination, explained Jepsen.
In addition, the proposal is written such that the certification program would only be offered by secondary schools, essentially meaning high school agriculture programs, Jepsen noted.
"This would eliminate the safety courses provided by other groups like Farm Bureaus or Extension. Students would have to find a local ag education program to participate," she said. "The course, basically an entire semester of study, would also deal with more than tractor safety, and would include confined space dangers and other farm-related safety issues."
In addition, the proposed regulation changes some key definitions. For example, the current regulation only applies to youth operating tractors rated at 20 horsepower. Jepsen said the proposal would now include tractors of any horsepower, including lawn and garden tractors.
The definition of power equipment used in the proposed regulation also includes any powered equipment, including hay elevators. Jepsen said that likely means farmers would not be able to employ students under 16 to work around hay elevators or in the barn putting up hay if an elevator were used. “That is an entry level type of job for young people that they would not be able to do for hire,” she noted.
Jepsen also said there are significant changes when it comes to working with livestock. Under the current regulation, youth under the age of 16 are prohibited from working in a pen or stall with an intact male animal, or a sow or cow that was still nursing. That restriction is much tighter under the proposed rule change.
"They've expanded that to say that students can't work with any animal husbandry practice like breeding, branding, dehorning or treating sick animals," she said. "They aren't allowed to catch chickens in preparation for market, and they can't herd animals in confined spaces or on horseback or using ATVs or other motorized vehicles."
She noted that this provision of the proposal has generated numerous questions about the implications to programs like 4-H and FFA, as well as organized youth livestock exhibitions in general.
Jepsen said other proposed changes affect students working in tobacco production, in grain handling and merchandising facilities, and on ladders and other elevated structures, among other areas of potential concern for farmers and youth interested in working in agriculture.
Jepsen noted that although many regulations are outdated and may need to be updated, it is crucial for the agricultural industry as well as vocational ag educators to comment on the impact of the proposed changes.
Jake Cummins, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation said, "No one cares more about these children than their own parents do. Many young people interested in agriculture develop a great work ethic and thoroughly enjoy working on farms and ranches, at sale yards and feed yards. You learn by doing. It would be a real shame to have this rule deter the absolutely essential development of the very kids we’re counting on becoming our next generation of farmers and ranchers.”
The Department received requests to extend the period for filing public comments from members of Congress and various agricultural business organizations. The DOL said it “does not believe that extending the comment period will delay publication of the important final rule.”
To comment on the rule, visit www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=WHD-2011-0001-0001.