The Hazardous Occupations Orders for Agricultural Employment hasn't been changed for the past 40 years, but an update of federal labor regulations governing youth employment could mean significant changes in the type of work young people can do on the farm.
In September, the U.S. Department of Labor notified farmers that they would have 60 days to express any concerns about nearly 100 pages of new guidelines that limit how teenagers can work in agricultural settings. The original comment closing period was scheduled to end Nov. 1, but it has been extended 30 days until Dec. 1.
Dee Jepsen, assistant professor in The Ohio State University department of food, agricultural and biological engineering, explained that the hazardous labor order for agriculture prohibits youth under the age of 16 from working in and around certain types of environments, with two basic exemptions.
One exemption allows children to work on farms owned and operated by their parents. When the 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 changed drastically in the past 50 years; the 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 [on which] teens are working. This is not currently proposed to be changed, but maybe this is an area where further discussion is needed so that children working for uncles, grandparents and other family members understand that they are not in a 'family farm' exemption status," she said.
Jepsen gave the example that if two brothers farm together and have formed a limited liability company, a child no longer meets the 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 allows children under the age of 16 to work if they completed a prescribed farm safety education and training program.
The major changes in the proposed rule pertain to tractor safety certification programs. Currently, students ages 14 and 15 can take a safety course through the local extension service 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, Jepsen explained.
The proposal is written such that the certification program would be offered only 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 [an extension service]. 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 proposal would change some key definitions. For example, the current regulation only applies to youth operating 20-horsepower tractors. Jepsen said the proposal would include tractors of any horsepower, including lawn and garden tractors.
The definition of power equipment proposed now also covers any powered equipment, including hay elevators. Jepsen said that likely means that farmers will 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 significant changes were proposed 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 is still nursing. That restriction is much tighter under the proposed 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 (all-terrain vehicles) or other motorized vehicles."
She noted that this provision of the proposal has generated numerous questions about the implications for 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.
Comments needed Dec. 1
Jepsen said although many regulations are outdated and may need to be updated, it is crucial for the agricultural industry as well as vocational agricultural 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 feedyards. 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 to become our next generation of farmers and ranchers."
The labor department received requests to extend the period for filing public comments from members of Congress and various agribusiness organizations. The department said it "does not believe extending the comment period will delay publication of the important final rule."
To file a comment on the rule visit www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail degrees =WHD-2011-0001-0001.
Fatka writes for Feedstuffs Weekly Newspaper, a sister publication of Beef Producer.