An update of federal labor regulations governing youth employment could mean significant changes in the types of work young people can do on the farm, according to the leader of Ohio State University Extension's Agricultural Safety and Health program.
"The Hazardous Occupations Orders For Agricultural Employment hasn't been touched or changed for the past 40 years," said Dee Jepsen, program leader and assistant professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "What the hazardous occupations order for agriculture does is prohibit youth under the age of 16 from working in and around certain types of environments, outside two basic exemptions."
One of the two exemptions allowed for in the order historically included allowing children to work on farms owned and operated by their parents. The second traditional exemption was for children under the age of 16 who completed a prescribed farm safety education and training program.
Jepsen said the first exemption is not expected to change with updated regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor. The second exemption, however, is slated to undergo a significant change.
"The second exemption is more commonly known as the tractor-safety certification program," she said. "Students aged 14 and 15 would take a safety course through Extension or their high school agriculture class. There is a written exam, and skills test, where they learn about safety procedures. The certification isn't necessarily a competency test in operating machinery."
That piece of the program typically involved 24 hours of coursework prior to the examination and skills test. The proposed regulation would expand the program requirement to 90 hours of study prior to an examination.
In addition, the proposal is written such that the certification program would only be offered 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 Extension. 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 proposed regulation changes some key definitions. For example, the current regulation only applies to youth operating tractors rated at 20 hp. Jepsen said the proposal would now include tractors of any horsepower, including lawn and garden tractors.
"If teens wanted to go out and till a neighbor's garden or mow with a small-horsepowered tractor to earn money, they would have to have the safety course if they are under 16," she explained.
In addition, the definition of power equipment used in the proposed regulation includes any powered equipment, including hay elevators. Jepsen said that likely means farmers would 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.
In addition, Jepsen said there are significant changes 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 was still nursing. That restriction is much tighter under the proposed rule 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 ATVs or other motorized vehicles."
She noted that this provision of the proposal has generated numerous questions about the implications to 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, among other areas of potential concern for farmers and youth interested in working in agriculture.
She said the premise behind the proposed changes is to protect youth from working in dangerous environments. The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor encouraged comments on the current proposal. The deadline for comment is Nov. 1, 2011.
"Our main objective is to inform the agricultural community about these changes and what is being proposed," she said. "We do not want to spread fear and get people panicking; however, they need to understand the changes and reply to the public comment period, or they will live with the regulations as proposed."
She encouraged farmers, educators and other interested parties to read the proposed regulations online and submit comments during the public comment period, regardless of their position on the proposed changes. She said additional information could be found online via the OSU Ag Safety and Health Program.