Child and adolescent farmworkers report serious safety gaps on the job, new study finds

With agriculture ranked one of the most dangerous industries in the country, many Americans might be surprised to know that it’s still perfectly legal for farms to officially employ children. For years, advocates have been working to address this gaping loophole in the nation’s child labor laws, often citing children’s increased vulnerability to workplace-related injury, illness and exploitation. A new study confirms those concerns, underscoring the need to better protect the children and youth working in American fields.

Published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), the study analyzed interview responses conducted among 87 hired farmworkers ages 10 to 17 years old in North Carolina in 2013. Study participants were asked to agree or disagree with questions such as whether they used safety goggles, hearing protection and respirators as well as whether they received proper safety training or experienced harassment on the job.

The study noted that current policy allows youth as young as 14 to be employed as farmworkers without parental permission, and those ages 10 to 13 can be hired with parental permission. Most youth farmworkers in the U.S. are Latino and are either immigrants or the U.S.-born children of immigrant farmworkers. Nearly 90 percent of the study participants reported being of Latino ethnicity and most were born in the U.S.

Noting that few studies have examined the workplace health and safety conditions that young hired farmworkers face, study authors Thomas Arcury, Gregory Kearney, Guadalupe Rodriguez, Justin Arcury and Sara Quandt write:

Hired youth farmworkers share the same vulnerabilities as adult farmworkers, including low wages, few or no benefits, few regulatory protections, hazardous work, discrimination, and limited access to health care. Youth farmworkers are especially vulnerable to occupational injuries because of their smaller size, lesser strength, and greater surface-to-volume ratio compared with adults; their developing neurological and reproductive systems; and their lack of maturity and experience.

The AJPH study shines a light on those vulnerabilities and the findings are disconcerting, to say the least. Researchers found that 54 percent of interviewees reported any type of musculoskeletal injury when doing farm work in the previous few months, nearly 70 percent reported any trauma and more than 72 percent reported dermatological injury. Only 8 percent wore safety goggles when doing farm tasks; only one young worker who reported working around noisy machinery used hearing protection; and only one among the 34 interviewees who worked around toxic substances or dust reported using a respirator. Overall, only 8 percent of study participants reported ever receiving training regarding pesticides, 21.8 percent received training in the safe use of tools and 8 percent reported machinery training.

While the majority of interviewees felt they had control over their safety and that safety was important to management, 23 percent believed they would likely experience an injury in the coming year and nearly 38 percent believed supervisors were only concerned with getting the job done quickly and cheaply. However, nearly 40 percent said they were regularly notified about dangerous practices or conditions and had received safety instructions at the time of hire. About one-third of study participants said proper safety equipment was always made available.

In terms of workplace harassment, 10.3 percent said they’d been stared at inappropriately or had a sexual remark made about them, while 4.6 percent had been brushed against, touched and grabbed in an unwanted way. And even though most said they were not afraid to speak up about safety issues, nearly 35 percent said they were afraid of being fired even though they had done nothing wrong.

Overall, study authors wrote that “hired youth farmworkers in North Carolina described a negative work safety culture.” The authors noted that this particular study was not able to tease out statistically significant links between a workplace safety culture and injuries among the young farmworkers. The authors concluded:

These results argue for the need for increased scrutiny of agriculture as a suitable industry for workers as young as 10 years. Additional research is needed to extend these results. However, based solely on these results, additional regulations to protect hired youth farmworkers, if not to remove them from the agricultural work environment, are warranted.

According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, the exact number of child farmworkers in the U.S. is unknown; however, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that between 180,000 and 300,000 U.S. farmworkers are younger than 18. About 100,000 children are estimated to experience agriculture-related injuries every year, and young farmworkers experience a higher frequency of serious and disabling injuries than young people in other job sectors. OSHA reports that in 2011, the overall fatality rate for agriculture was seven times higher than for all workers in the private sector.

To learn more about efforts to protect child farmworkers, read our previous coverage here and here. To take action in support of child farmworkers, visit Human Rights Watch. And to request a full copy of the AJPH study, click here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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