August 12, 2011

Legs of Two 17-Year-Olds Severed in Grain Auger, White House Sits on Young Worker Safety Rule

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

Tyler Zander, 17 and Bryce Gannon, 17 were working together on Thursday, August 4 at the Zaloudek Grain Co. in Kremlin, Oklahoma. They were operating a large floor grain aguer when something went terribly wrong. Oklahoma's reports that Bryce Gannon's legs became trapped in the auger, Tyler Zander went to his friend's aid and his legs also were pulled into the heavy machinery. Emergency rescue personnel had to cut apart the 12-inch metal auger in order to free the young men. They were flown 100 miles to Oklahoma City for surgery and they remain hospitalized.

The fatality rate for young workers performing hazardous tasks----like working with a grain auger-----is two times the fatality rate for all U.S. workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), administered by the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (W&H) stipulates dozens of work activities that are too dangerous for workers of certain ages. Individuals under age 18, for example, are prohibited from working most jobs in coal mines, from forest-fire fighting, and from operating meat slicers and cardboard balers in grocery stores. However, the safety rules governing young workers employed in agricultural jobs have not been updated for 40 years.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in December 2010:

"Protecting children and vulnerable workers abroad is a part of our overall efforts here at the Department of Labor."

In fact, just a few weeks earlier, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour division sent a draft proposed rule to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review. [Why they sent an economically non-significant proposed rule to OIRA is another matter, and one I've written about previously.] The draft rule proposes modifications to Subpart E-1 of 29 CFR 570, entitled "Occupations in Agriculture Particularly Hazardous for the Employment of Children Below the Age of 16." The proposed changes are based in part on evidence assembled several years ago by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on injuries and deaths among young workers employed in agricultural jobs.

While 17 year old Tyler Zander and Bryce Gannon recover in the hospital, proposed improvements to Subpart E-1----including provisions related to young people working in commercial grain elevators----have been stalled "in review" at the White House for nine months. Secretary Solis' latest regulatory plan says she doesn't expect to issue the proposed rule until December. It's troubling to me that in op-eds and speeches President Obama uses child labor protections as an example of common sense regulations, yet it's his White House that is holding up changes to modernize them. Worse yet, these improvements are just at the preliminary stage of the rulemaking process. The document being held-up at OIRA is a PROPOSED rule---a document about which the Labor Department will seek public comment. A final rule is still a long way down the road.

For an Administration that says it believes in child labor protections, and boasts about its commitment to public participation, openness and transparency (see yet another announcement this week) its failure to publish this proposed rule is especially inexcusable.

Celeste Monforton, Assistant Research Professor, GWU School of Public Health.

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