Saturday, April 28, 2012

Farm Safety: The Real Story

U.S. Labor Department has just withdrawn a set of proposed safety regulations for young people working in agriculture. The regulations proposed to disallow children under 16 from operating machinery with power takeoffs, and from working in feed lots, grain silos and stockyards.

Under these regulations, my brother wouldn't have been able to pay for his university education by farming my grandmother's land. And my dad wouldn't have been able to tell the story about riding his bicycle down the road when he was ten, and seeing a driverless tractor coming toward him. As it approached, he realized it was being driven by his five-year-old cousin who couldn't be seen above the steering wheel. My brother and my dad's cousin survived, just as I survived using the rotary mower, as a subcontractor mowing besides the railway tracks, at age 13.

But the thing is, my dad didn't survive a farm accident, three years ago. Farming is dangerous. A Stats Canada Report shows that "Agriculture is one of the industries with the highest rates of fatal injury. From 1991 to 1995, that rate varied between 14.9 and 25.6 per 100,000 workers in Canada... Agricultural production thus ranks as the fourth most dangerous sector, behind mining, forestry and construction ...With regards to non-fatal injuries among agricultural producers, studies indicate that annual frequencies are generally in the range of 5% to 10% of the population." It's not just because the average age of farmers is really high: the injury death rate for young children who live on farms is almost twice that for all young children in Canada.

Maybe it is more effective to educate about farm safety than to disallow children from working on farms - this is the tack the American government is going to take. However, I think there are two essential pieces to this news that have not been emphasized. First, these labour laws would not have applied to children working on their parents' farms. How many children under the age of fifteen (need to) work on other peoples' farms? Yet, it wasn't only 4-H instructors complaining about these laws. News articles were full of emotional manipulation like this:
e here:

On the Sombke family farm four kids learned everything they know about the trade from their parents..."I wouldn't have worked out here, I would have taken a completely different, completely different path in life," Brett Sombke said.
The Republicans were all over this overblown rhetoric, for their own political gain. However, despite the wholly inaccurate portrayal of the proposed laws in this article, the closing paragraph holds the key to another very important piece of the puzzle:
Brett says it's hard enough to find people to work during the spring and fall. He says that without kids being able to perform certain tasks on family farms the traditional meaning of family farm could end.
None of the farm groups protesting this law have mentioned the bigger issue behind it - the need for cheap or free labour on family farms. How many bankers or plumbers do you know who need to take their kids to work just to keep food on the table? (Hint: none.) And it's not because they are so much better at their jobs than family farmers are at theirs. It's because small family farmers are getting screwed every which way by input sellers, by processors, by commodity speculators, by consumer expectations of cheap food.

And *that* is the real problem.

And, it might even have something to do with farm safety. Stats Canada also says that farm receipts are inversely proportional to farm accidents.

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