Danger in the Fields: Children Exposed to Hazards

There are many dangers for children working in agricultural fields. AFOP estimates there are as many as 500,000 children working in agriculture, risking their health and often times their future. Children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, relentlessly toiling in large agricultural fields to contribute to the meager wages of their parents, often pay the biggest price.

The modern agricultural system is dominated by large farms that rely on heavy machinery and powerful chemicals, much more so than when the original laws concerning child labor were written in 1938. In fact, regulations governing child labor were last addressed 40 years ago. Times have changed. The fields have become increasingly dangerous as growing demand for cheaper fruits and vegetables has risen. Even during the winter months, farmworkers labor in pesticide soaked fields at neck-breaking speeds to keep up with the demand.

Children suffer injuries and even die way too often for us to ignore these dangers. For example this year alone, two 14-year-old girls were killed and eight others were injured while detassling corn in Tampico, Illinois after being electrocuted by irrigation equipment in July. In August, two 17-year-olds each lost a leg when they became trapped in a grain auger in Kremlin, Oklahoma.

Stories like these are unfortunately not rare. Children, because they are still developing, are not equipped to work in the most dangerous industry in the United States. Acute injuries and death are not the only problem: constant pesticide exposure has been shown to cause long-term health damage. Furthermore, what about children working in tobacco fields? It is illegal for children to smoke cigarettes due to health dangers, yet children working in tobacco fields may be exposed to nicotine levels equivalent to smoking 36 cigarettes per day.

The truth is that agricultural work is dangerous for everyone, not just children. The National Safety Council ranked agriculture as the most dangerous industry for even adult workers, with 28.7 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2008. Children, however, are at an even greater risk for injury and death in the fields. Agriculture has the highest fatality rate for youth workers of any industry, with 40% of all youth fatalities occurring on farms. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on farms in the United States, making that over 100 preventable deaths of children per year. Half of those children who die are under 15 years of age.

Most children working in agriculture work alongside their parents out of necessity and poverty, the same as many children did in factories prior to 1938. Throughout long days of back-breaking labor, farm working children are exposed to dangerous pesticides; heavy machinery, such as tractors; tools, such as large, sharp, shears and machetes; all while straining their developing bodies in the relentless heat and sun of the summer months. These kinds of dangerous, unhealthy conditions are deemed illegal and strictly reserved for adults in nearly every other industry.

Much stricter regulation exists in all other industries, protecting children from getting injured in the workplace. Agriculture has been, and continues to be, the most dangerous industry for children to work in. Yet, even after seeing horrible injuries and deaths time and time again children as young as 12 continue to be allowed to work in the hazardous fields day after day?

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