WASHINGTON — Under pressure from farm groups, the Labor Department has agreed to modify a plan that's intended to keep children away from some of the most dangerous farm jobs.
The proposal now will include broader exemptions for children whose parents are part owners or operators of farms, or have a substantial interest in a farm partnership or corporation, officials said Wednesday. The rules would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven equipment and prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain bins and stockyards.
Farm groups had complained that the initial rules — proposed last year — would upset traditions where children often work alongside their parents and relatives to learn how a farm operates.
The rule's original language exempted youths only on farms wholly owned or operated by their parents, but did not include thousands of farms owned by closely held corporations or partnerships of family members and other relatives.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said her agency would work with the Agriculture Department to ensure that the rules reflect the concerns of rural communities.
"The Department of Labor appreciates and respects the role of parents in raising their children and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms," Solis said in a statement.
American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman called the decision a positive step, but predicted the rules would still have "a detrimental effect on family farms." He said they would create an even tighter supply of farm labor that is already in short supply.
"Laws and regulations need to be sensible and within reason, not prohibiting teenagers from performing simple everyday farm functions like operating a battery-powered screwdriver," Stallman said.
Labor officials say their goal is to better protect children who are more vulnerable to injury when performing tasks like driving tractors. The fatality rate for farm workers aged 15 to 17 is four times higher than in non-farm industries, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The study found that 74 percent of children under age 15 who were killed on the job from 2003 to 2010 were employed in agriculture.
The Labor Department estimates the rule would affect fewer than 56,000 workers.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the decision to broaden exemptions show the Labor Department listened to the nation's farmers.
"This announcement and the additional opportunity for comment represent a common-sense approach to strengthen our agricultural economy while keeping farm kids safe," Vilsack said.
More than 30 lawmakers from farm states had called on the department to rescind the rules, saying they would have a negative impact on rural employers and interfere with parents' ability to train the next generation of farmers.
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One of those lawmakers, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, called the decision Wednesday "promising news" but said the overall proposal remains "a threat to the future of agriculture." He said the new rules would prohibit children from performing common farm tasks like rounding up cattle on horseback, operating a tractor, or cleaning out stalls with a shovel and wheelbarrow.
Solis said the Labor Department would propose the modified rules this summer and offer a separate comment period on those changes. The agency will continue to review more than 18,000 comments it has already received.
Until the new exemption is made final, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division will apply current laws that ban children from performing certain hazardous occupations.