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Dec. 1, 2011

Department of Labor Should Protect Child Farm Workers From Excessive Heat Exposure

Public Citizen Urges Agency to Require Employers to Provide Rest and Water Breaks, Train Employees About Heat-Related Illness

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) should institute protections from extreme heat exposure for child farmworkers under the age of 16, Public Citizen said in comments sent today to the agency’s Wage and Hour Division. The division called for public comment on proposed, wide-ranging changes to the existing regulations governing child labor protections in agriculture, the first such changes in 40 years. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could protect workers of all ages from heat exposure but to date has refused to develop such a rule.

Children as young as 12 toil on farms as long as 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, often in sweltering conditions, a recent report by Human Rights Watch found. Because of biological characteristics (such as a greater surface-area-to-body-mass ratio and a lower sweat capacity) and a reduced tendency to know when to take a break in response to heat symptoms, young farm workers are particularly at risk of excessive heat exposure, Public Citizen said in its comments.

Reserving its objections to the practice of child labor, to which it is opposed, Public Citizen called on the DOL to establish a heat-stress threshold that requires employers to take immediate action to prevent the onset of heat injury, among other protective measures.

Child labor has long been banned, but children are permitted to work on farms at an early age through an exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act that was ostensibly carved out to cater to small family farms, but which in reality is quite commonly exploited by large agribusiness.

“Permitting children to work for below-minimum wage, often for 12 hours continuously or longer in dangerous conditions, harks back to the days of the Industrial Revolution, when children toiled in dangerous factories for slave wages – a chapter in American history most thought was long gone,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and author of the comments. “Sadly, however, the practice is alive and well on industrial ‘farms’ across the country. The DOL should act promptly to remove the hazard of excessive heat exposure from the already dangerous tasks young farm workers face.”

Public Citizen petitioned OSHA, which is housed in the DOL, in September calling for a federal standard to protect all workers from extreme heat exposure, which has killed more than 500 workers and seriously injured more than 43,000 over the past 20 years. Overall, agricultural workers die from heat-related illness at a rate more than 19 times the national average. Because child farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to serious injury or death due to extreme heat exposure, they should have their own protections, Public Citizen said in its comments.

In the past 20 years, at least 1,672 teenage workers have been seriously injured from excessive heat exposure – an average of 93 workers injured per year from an entirely preventable hazard.

Moreover, that rate is likely under-reported. Workers often fail to report heat-related illness and are unable to take time off to recuperate. Additionally, signs of heat stress – rash, sweating, headaches and fatigue – can be confused with similar symptoms associated with exposure to pesticides.

Accurate reporting also is hindered by unique factors to the agricultural workforce, such as the migrant and seasonal nature of farm work and many workers’ limited English skills, as well as economic and social factors, including workers’ fear of losing their jobs if they take time off or of being deported if they report their injuries.

Public Citizen commended the DOL for proposing the changes and urged the agency to finalize the following requirements for agricultural employers: 

  • Prohibit children under 16 from working altogether when temperatures exceed certain thresholds;
  • Give young workers periodic rest breaks every hour when temperatures are high;
  • Provide workers with sufficient amounts of cold, potable drinking water;
  • Train new employees and supervisors about employee rights under the new heat standard, the hazards of heat stress, warning signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, and ways to treat heat illness; and
  • Have a plan to take immediate action to remove an employee showing or reporting signs of heat illness.

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