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Child labor: Farming parents defend putting children to work

The US Labor Department has dropped its plans to regulate child labor on farms. The rules, say some farmers, did not reflect the reality on farms where children grow up learning about the dangers of equipment.

By Jim SuhrAssociated Press / July 10, 2012

Jacob Mosbacher, 10, guides a tractor through a bean field on his grandparents' property in June. Agriculture organizations and federal lawmakers from farm states succeeded last spring in convincing the US Labor Department to drop proposals limiting farm work by children whose parents say such questions of safety involving kids should be left to parents.

Jim Suhr/AP

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Fults, Ill.

As he watched his 10-year-old son ease a tractor across a soybean field, Dennis Mosbacher acknowledged the risks of farming.

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But Mr. Mosbacher said the US Labor Department was misguided in its attempts to protect children from farm accidents and he's relieved the agency dropped its plans this spring and has promised not to take up the matter again.

"You can't make a rule to stop every accident," Mosbacher said after his son Jacob hopped off the 40-year-old, 60-horsepower tractor at their farm near the tiny southern Illinois town of Fults. "There's always a risk in life, no matter what you do."

Labor Department officials don't deny that, but they note that children performing farm work are four times more likely to be killed than those employed in all other industries combined.

Under the Labor Department's failed proposal, paid farm workers would have to be 16 to use power equipment, such as tractors. They would have to be 18 to work at grain elevators, silos and feedlots. The rules would not have applied to children working at farms owned by their parents, but they would have limited the paid jobs youngsters could do on their neighbors' and relatives' farms.

John Myers, chief of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Administration's surveillance and field investigations branch, said it's unfortunate the agency dropped its proposal in the face of intense opposition from agricultural groups. Agency officials have said they will not take up the matter again as long as Barack Obama is president.

"I have not seen any youth working in other industries that are at higher risk," Mr. Myers said. "(Farming) may be an accepted risk for the parent, but the question is to put that risk on the child. That's the question that's not being adequately addressed.

"If society says you have to be 16 to operate a car, I don't see how you can say it's any less sound advice that you have to be 16 to operate farm equipment," he added. "I suspect this will not be addressed again, and I suspect we will continue to have youths dying on farms each year in situations that were perfectly preventable."

The lack of action also troubles Cheryl Monen, who lives in the small northwestern Iowa community of Lester.

Had such child labor rules been in place a year ago, her 17-year-old son might still be alive.

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