Balancing work, safety challenges farm parents
9/12/2012 4:21:11 PM
The kids are starting to outgrow the swing set here on the Thompson farm.
However, you can still swing high in the air while watching the cows in the pasture. It’s the type of view that is common on farms — a little corner of the tapestry of rural life.
So, perhaps it isn’t surprising when the U.S. Department of Labor this past year proposed updating its child-labor laws for the first time in 40 years.
That proposal included changes to regulations regarding children working on the farm. It unleashed a torrent of criticism.
The proposed new rules were first revised then later scrapped altogether.
But, the swing set on this farm is still in the same place.
Jeff and Susan Thompson still enjoy watching their three sons play on it. And, those same sons all help with daily farm chores.
“The farm is a great place to raise a family,” Susan says, using the same words that likely would be used by many other farm families.
One look around the Thompson farm shows this is a close family that enjoys farm life.
The three boys: Garrett, 15; Lance, 13; and Brock, 10, all have chores. They feed and check cattle, help fix fence and do countless other jobs.
“They’re a major part of the equation,” Jeff says. Since he and his wife work full-time jobs off the farm, the help the boys provide is invaluable.
It is clear the boys love it.
“I guess I just like being outside, unconfined,” Garrett says.
Of course, children have always been allowed to work on their parents’ farm, just as is the case for other types of businesses. The proposed rules were aimed primarily at children who worked as employees for other people.
But, lawmakers have had a difficult time coming up with a definition of a farm or a family business over the years. That conflict was probably inevitable once rules were proposed.
“I’m a parent. I have two kids,” explains Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.
“I think one of the most important things a parent does is to prepare their children for life. Work is a part of that.”
Hill says the proposed rules raised all kinds of issues regarding what children would be allowed to do on the farm and his organization, like many other farm groups, strongly opposed them.
But, he concedes most farmers think of their own operation, while rule makers may be looking at ag businesses that employ dozens of people and which may put under-age workers in dangerous positions.
Statistics show agriculture remains a dangerous occupation. Under-age employees on farms and other agribusinesses die at a higher rate than in most other businesses.
For example, the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wis., reports there were 695 farm-related youth fatalities in the country between 1995 and 2000.
Ron Hayes of Fairhope, Ala., understands the danger all too well. Hayes, who does not farm, lost a teenage son, who suffocated in a grain bin while working at an ag business in 1993.
He eventually started Families in Grief Hold Together (FIGHT) as a way of helping grieving families who had lost loved ones in farm accidents.
Hayes spent two days working at a booth at the Missouri State Fair this summer.
He says that experience was a reminder education, personal stories and hands-on advice work well with a farm audience. However, when the government is mentioned the attitude changes.
“For two days we were in that booth,” Hayes says. “We probably had nearly 2,000 people come through.
“And, I’m going to tell you, the family farmers there were very angry about the regulations. They were telling me that the government is not going to tell them what to do. I saw the disdain on their faces.”
But, when Hayes would talk about his story and about farm safety and about some of the very factors the regulations were aimed at, the response was different.
People understood some of the dangers and were genuinely interested in some of the practical advice Hayes offered, such as telling them to first shut off the auger before entering a bin or putting a lock on the door to keep children or other people out.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says there were problems with the proposed rules, such as defining the situations or farms that would be exempt from child-labor regulations.
For example, children still could have worked on their parents’ farm, but there were concerns about whether they would still be allowed to work on an uncle’s farm or in certain types of farms that were incorporated.
“They (federal rule-writers) tried to revise it to address those issues,” Northey says. “But, I’m not sure they totally got it.
“They might have been writing rules for states or places with more immigrant labor or other issues, but in doing that they caught other people in the crossfire.”
And so, the proposed rules went away.
The discussion ended. However, the statistics remain. Most farmers and farm leaders still say the farm is the best place in the world to raise a family.
They say working on a farm is a great preparation for life. They also concede too many people die or get injured on farms, and too many of them are kids or young workers.
So, the attention turns to education. And, it turns to a wide variety of groups ranging from FIGHT to Farm Safety 4 Just Kids to the National Farm Safety Council.
Also, it turns to families like the Thompsons, who want to raise healthy children who know the value of the farm and of labor.