Agriculture Is the Most Dangerous Industry for Child Workers – and the Trump Administration Is Making It Worse

Far more American children die working in agriculture than in any other industry, and thousands more are injured while working on farms, according to a recent little-noticed report by the investigative arm of Congress. Yet the Trump administration wants to relax farmworker safety rules to allow kids as young as 16 to spray dangerous pesticides on crops.

The report by the Government Accountability Office found that between 2003 to 2016, more than half of the 452 children age 17 and under who died on the job were farmworkers. The GAO estimated that more than 4,700 children are injured each year working on farms but said conflicting and incomplete data from the Labor Department and other federal agencies prevented an accurate accounting of injuries to young farmworkers.

The GAO audit was requested by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, (D-Conn.), and Lucille Roybal-Allard, (D-Calif.). In response to the report, DeLauro and Roybal-Allard issued a statement that said:

The GAO report’s findings are damning. This report confirms that child labor is contributing to a devastating amount of fatalities in the United States – disproportionately so in the agricultural sector. In that industry, kids are often exposed to dangerous pesticides, heavy machinery, and extreme heat, and they are being killed as a result. That is unacceptable.

The congresswomen urged the Trump administration to enforce “policies that uphold the basic well-being of child workers, instead of rolling back child labor protections and lifesaving regulations.” 

The report was released in November, just one month after the White House said it planned to drop the age of farmworkers permitted to spray restricted-use pesticides on crops from 18 to 16. If the plan is implemented, starting this fall, minors will be allowed to apply dangerous chemicals such as chlorpyrifos, which Environmental Protection Agency scientists say can cause brain damage in children even in small doses.

In one of the first acts of the Trump administration, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt aborted a scheduled ban of chlorpyrifos just weeks after meeting with the CEO of Dow, chlorpyrifos’s manufacturer. The reversal of the ban was recently overturned by a federal appeals court. Under Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA is fighting the court’s order to ban the pesticide.  

The minimum age rules were enacted by the Obama administration to protect minors who work on farms. Some of these teenagers are members of families who own or operate the farms, but many are migrant workers who speak little English, making it harder to understand directions about how to apply pesticides safely. 

The rules were championed by physicians and farmworker-rights advocates, who led a multiyear effort to improve protections for farmworkers. Disclosure forms show that in the first year of the Trump administration, the American Farm Bureau Federation – the main lobby group for the conventional agriculture industry – met with members of Congress and the administration on the minimum age rules.

The GAO report did not say whether any of the deaths or injuries of minors working on farms were caused by exposure to pesticides. But it did note that an estimated one in seven 16-year-old farm workers reported that their jobs included loading, mixing or applying pesticides. And it said that the Labor Department classifies handling or applying dangerous pesticides as “particularly hazardous” for children under age 16.

A recent analysis by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said agriculture is the eighth-most deadly occupation in the nation, with more deaths in 2017 than in law enforcement.

The GAO report and the proposed change in the minimum-age rule underscore, once again, the Trump administration’s disregard for evidence of the dangers that rolling back environmental, health and safety protections pose to children. Instead, the administration continues to put the interests of the pesticide and conventional agriculture industries ahead of the health and safety of America’s children.

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