Working in and around grain bins was just one of the many jobs I performed at a very young age while growing up on a farm just outside of Neola, Iowa. Many times I worked those grain bins alongside friends the same age as myself and outside the scope of adult supervision. I was reminded of this work when I came across a recent 60 Minute episode (found here) which questioned whether 12 year olds should be working 10 hours a day as seasonal field workers.
Without a doubt, hard work is beneficial for kids in developing a strong work ethic and understanding of the adult world they will be entering. Therefore, the issue is not whether kids should be working on the farm or ranch, but whether the kids are prepared, properly trained, and supervised for the work performed. A lot of the jobs performed on the ranch or farm are inherently and unavoidably dangerous. In terms of potential litigation, a 14 year old injured in an accident makes for a more sympathetic lawsuit than an 18 year old injured in the same accident.
The issue was illustrated in a grain bin accident that took the lives of 14 year old, Wyatt Whitebread, and 19 year old, Alejandro Pacas last July in Mount Carroll, Illinois. (As reported by Judith Graham in the Chicago Tribune found here) Wyatt and Alejandro suffocated when they became buried in a sinkhole while breaking up wet corn in a 500,000 bushel grain bin. OSHA proposed a $550,000 fine and the U.S. Labor Department found the owner of the grain bin violated child labor laws for hiring kids under the age of 18 to perform hazardous jobs. Whitebread’s family filed a lawsuit against the grain bin owners alleging Whitebread was employed illegally and was not provided proper safety precautions or training. The grain bin owner disputed the fine, violations, and lawsuit on the basis that OSHA cannot regulate activities of farmers with 10 or fewer employees and minors engaged in agricultural pursuits are exempt from Illinois child labor laws.
Outrage from accidents such as the one in Mount Carroll may cause the federal and state authorities to get more involved and increase regulations of children employed in agriculture. All accidents are preventable with the proper precautions. However, extra precautions need to be taken when dealing with young hands on the ranch and farm. Finally, it is always wise to know your local child labor laws before employing little Johnny from down the road.
Check out Nebraska Revised Statutes 48-301 et al and Iowa Code Chapter 92 for local child labor laws.