By Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition
An estimated 25 to 30 kids a year die at work. Through its advocacy and its work, the Child Labor Coalition, a campaign of the National Consumers League (NCL), has worked to reduce that number over the years. Last spring, the NCL’s annual report on The Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teens included the agricultural industry. Last year, we worked to help enact proposed rules to protect kids working in agriculture ultimately, however, that effort failed, and the organized farm lobby was able to force the Obama administration to withdraw the rules. We estimate this will lead to the unnecessary deaths of 50 to 100 youth working on farms over the next decade.
This week, the national media has focused much-needed attention on a particular type of farm-related death: work in grain silo facilities, which in a typical year kills 15 or more workers. According to recent data, 20 percent of the victims of grain engulfments are young workers.
National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System’s News Hour each featured in-depth stories this week, highlighting a terrible tragedy that occurred in Mount Carroll, Illinois nearly three years ago. Two teens were engulfed by grain and killed while working in a silo: 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread and 19-year-old Alex Pacas. Will Piper, a 20-year-old co-worker, barely escaped with his life because someone threw him a bucket that he was able to put over his head. The bucket prevented the flowing grain from asphyxiating him. Today, Piper lives in guilt because he turned his friend Alex Pacas onto work in the grain silo.
Among the worst aspects of this case are the fact that Wyatt, 14, was too young to be doing such dangerous work. He and Alex also should have been wearing safety harnesses as they walked on top of the crusty grain trying to loosen it. The facility had the mandatory harnesses but didn’t instruct or compel the teens to wear them.
The NPR and PBS stories grew out of reporting from the Center for Public Integrity. The center found that the fines levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a result of preventable grain engulfments were typically reduced over 50 percent and in some cases well over 90 percent.
In the deaths of Alex Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread, OSHA found 12 “willful violations” and initially leveled $555,000 in fines. This amount was later reduced to $200,000. A Center for Public Interest-NPR analysis found that the $9.2 million fines proposed by OSHA for engulfments that killed 179 people between 1984 and 2012 were eventually reduced to $3.8 million.
NCL and the CLC believe strongly that youth working on farms and agricultural facilities need to have stronger protections. We urge the Obama administration to reconsider the youth occupational safety rules it withdrew last April. Why allow teen workers to engage in jobs that we know to be extremely dangerous? And in cases where employers are found to be at fault for the death of teen workers, why are fines consistently and dramatically reduced?