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Even Without New Federal Rules Youth Safety on Dairy Farms Needs Attention

Chuck Schwartau, Dairy Extension Educator

July 14, 2012

Proposed federal rules limiting child labor on farms created quite an uproar over the last several months. Many players in agriculture weighed in on the discussion and created enough questions that the proposal was withdrawn by the Department of Labor. Common arguments against the proposal included that children develop a strong work ethic and learn about agriculture by being closely involved in the farm operations. Some even said they threatened 4H and FFA programs with the restrictions. While those arguments have some validity, they should come with caution as well.

Some people look at that withdrawal as a "win" for agriculture and democracy in action. While I shared some of the concerns raised, agriculture needs to look at this incident as a wake-up call.

That proposal should have focused everyone's attention to the fact agriculture is still one of our nation's most hazardous occupations. When you add the fact that it is an industry where many of the participants literally live in their workplace and children are around a great deal, the responsibility needs to be taken seriously.

I don't think any parent intentionally puts their children in positions where they could be injured or worse. How often have you asked a child to hold a gate or watch a conveyor or auger without thinking about the hazards that go with that simple request? The task may seem insignificant, but that doesn't lessen the hazard.

Children aren't just small adults. Children on the farm witness a lot of what their parents and others are doing on the farm, but that doesn't mean they understand what is being done, or the inherent hazards that go along with the tasks. Children lack the level of judgment, understanding, physical strength and decision-making skills that may be necessary to work safely.

Every parent or guardian who has children on the farm should spend time studying the North American Guidelines for Children's Agricultural Tasks (NAGCAT) to learn about appropriate tasks for children and how to develop a safe environment for young people to learn about and participate in agriculture.

NAGCAT is a product of the Marshfield (Wisconsin) Clinic Research Foundation. The Marshfield Clinic has long been involved in farm safety issues and has developed a national reputation for its work with children on farms. I think it is important to note this clinic is in the heart of farm country, not some institution in the middle of a metropolis where there is little understanding of production agriculture.

NAGCAT has produced a set of simple guideline posters (some available in Spanish) that can help a parent or guardian assess whether or not children should be performing over 60 typical tasks on the farm. The list includes several items for children on dairy farms: animal care, manual labor, general activities, implement operations, haying operations, and tractor fundamentals. Each of those categories has six to ten specific assessment posters for use. The posters include questions related to the child's ability to focus on a task, follow simple instructions, vision and strength, training and supervision of adults recommended. All are designed to help decide whether or not a child can safely handle the task at hand.

These posters are found free of charge at The Marshfield Clinic website has many more resources than just the posters that may be of interest. People interested in safety training, developing best practices for safe farm operation and public information on farm safety can find resources at the site.

As parents, you can also encourage others to use the resource with their children. Peer pressure among children (and perhaps even parents) to engage in larger tasks all the time can be tremendous. If all the parents in the area are working from the same set of guidelines, that peer pressure backs down considerably, and it probably results in a safer neighborhood where children can still be safely involved in the farming operation but be at appropriate levels.

So back to federal rules on youth employment in agriculture the topic won't go away. There will always be those who want to make the rules more stringent in the interest of protecting youth. The more the agriculture community does itself to practice good judgment and safety, putting children only at appropriate tasks and with adequate supervision; the less likely you will see stringent rules imposed upon you by others. The responsibility for safety of youth living and working on farms is in your hands.

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