Regulations Are Killed, and Kids Die
Michael Steele with a wild turkey he shot in 2012
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. Research assistance: Darren Ankrom, Abbie Nehring.
Michael Steele, a gregarious kid whose friends sometimes called him Bubba, had recently shot up from chubby middle-schooler to a teen with a six-foot-three, 185-pound frame. For the last couple of summers, beginning when he was just 13, he had worked chopping wood, selling his garden vegetables and hauling hay for local farmers. Michael, who shared a home in the tiny town of Frankford, Missouri, with his mother and sister, had his eyes on a single goal. “He saved up all his money for a truck,” his mother, Dena Steele, told me. “He went from playing video games 24/7 to working all the time. Even when one of his friends or his girlfriend wanted to hang out, he told them, ‘No, I have to work.’ ”
The truck Michael wanted was a blue 2002 Dodge Ram pickup with a Cummins diesel engine, the kind you see on rural roads with custom alterations like giant wheels or chromed exhaust pipes curving up from the sides of the cab. Michael’s mind was so fixed on this truck that he’d begun to build his life dreams around it, setting his sights on a vocational program in diesel mechanics.
By last summer, Michael had saved up $7,000 from his modest farm wages, but he didn’t live to get his Dodge Ram. He went out the afternoon of July 1 with a friend, 17-year-old Matt McGlasson, to earn just a little more, moving hay bales for a horse farmer who is a cousin of his grandfather’s.
Michael climbed high up into the driver’s seat on a 1954 International Harvester tractor, the same model his grandfather had taught him on—a tractor built before seat belts came along. It had a long flatbed trailer, ten to fifteen feet, hitched to its rear for carrying hay bales.
McGlasson rode on the empty trailer, his back to Michael. The gravel road to the hay field was dusty but even, free of potholes. But somehow Michael lost his balance. McGlasson told the Highway Patrol at the scene: “I was sitting on the back of the trailer facing north. I heard him yell and saw he was holding on to, I think, the back of the seat. I stood up and seen him let go and fall.”
Michael had fallen to the left side, onto the roadway. McGlasson reacted fast, clambering along the trailer to the tractor’s gears to stop it. But the tractor continued, driverless, for a crucial moment, long enough for the left wheels and axle of the flatbed to crush Michael’s chest. He died at the scene. He was just 15.
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People think of child labor as being a thing of the past in the United States, and to work most jobs kids do have to be at least 16. But from the start, the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, treated farmwork differently. In agriculture, kids as young as 12 can work legally. Provisions governing dangerous work are different in agriculture, too. The Labor Department has a list of “hazardous occupations” that kids can’t do until they turn 18; in agriculture, they can do them at 16, even though federal officials have found that farmworker youth are at “high risk” for fatal injuries. And that hazards list hasn’t been updated since 1970.
Last year, that was about to change. In late 2011, the Labor Department, based on research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), had proposed an updated list of hazardous occupations in agriculture that would be off limits to kids under 16. These included working near manure pits or inside grain silos (the latter had trapped at least fifty-one workers in 2010, more than half of whom died), using power machinery, working outdoors in dangerously hot weather, climbing tall ladders, working with certain livestock, harvesting tobacco, and driving large farm vehicles or trucks on certain roads, as Michael had been doing.
“It’s just like in a McDonald’s,” says Zama Coursen-Neff, executive director of the children’s rights initiative at Human Rights Watch. “We let 14- and 15-year-olds run the cash register, but we don’t let them run the fryer.” But after a storm of protest from the Farm Bureau and other agricultural lobbies [see Gabriel Thompson’s article in this issue], the Labor Department withdrew the proposed rules—which had been years in the making—in April 2012.
The cost of that reversal may never be officially tallied. But after carefully piecing together available data, I discovered that, along with Michael, at least twelve other young farmworkers under the age of 16 have died since those protections were scuttled a year and a half ago. At least four of them died doing the hazardous tasks those rules would have prohibited them from performing.
The Search for Cases
My attempt to determine how many farmworker kids have been injured or killed since April 2012 met with many roadblocks. One important study, the Labor Department’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), released in August and still preliminary, recorded nineteen deaths among workers under 16 last year, up from ten the year before. But it doesn’t yet specify which of these deaths happened in agriculture. Another study, the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illness (SOII), found a rate of 5.5 injuries and illnesses per 100 workers reported in the agricultural sector in 2011 and 2012—up from a rate of 4.8 per 100 workers in 2010—but it did not provide a tally of injuries to workers under 16. Agriculture has among the highest injury and death rates of all industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produced both studies, denied a request for case files, arguing that providing them would jeopardize the privacy of employers. (An appeal has been filed with the solicitor of labor.) The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigates workplace accidents, hasn’t compiled data for 2012, and dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests filed with regional and state OSHA offices and workers’ compensation boards yielded injury data from only three states.
And there are limits on OSHA’s reach in any case. In Iowa, where the agency does cover agricultural employers, OSHA performed just thirty-one inspections on 92,300 farms in 2011. In other heavily agricultural states, like North Carolina, oversight is conducted instead by an agricultural safety council dominated by farmers’ or growers’ associations. North Carolina’s Department of Labor responded to a FOIA request regarding injuries, illnesses and deaths among farmworkers ages 12 to 16 since April 2012 by saying it had “no records or documents” for this age group, adding that employers are required to report only accidents in which an employee dies or three or more are hospitalized. So any incident that does not meet these criteria (such as a single worker being hurt) is not reported.
I was mostly left to comb through local news clippings and to call farmworker advocates and researchers—people who spend time in the fields and might hear of accidents. The experts I called were vexed by the lack of available data on farmworker children. “The big story is, we don’t have a surveillance system,” says Amy Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health for the Salisbury, Maryland–based Migrant Clinicians Network. The CFOI numbers give “a general sort of idea,” she adds, but “they really miss some of the hired teen workers.”