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FULTS, Ill. — As he watched his 10-year-old son ease a tractor across a soybean field, Dennis Mosbacher acknowledged the risks of farming.
But Mr. Mosbacher said the U.S. Labor Department was misguided in its attempts to protect children from farm accidents and he's relieved the agency dropped its plans this spring and has promised not to take up the matter again.
"You can't make a rule to stop every accident," Mr. Mosbacher said after his son Jacob hopped off the 40-year-old 60-horsepower tractor at their farm near the southern Illinois town of Fults. "There's always a risk in life, no matter what you do."
Labor Department officials don't deny that, but they note that children performing farm work are four times more likely to be killed than those employed in all other industries combined.
Under the department's failed proposal, paid farm workers would have to be 16 to use power equipment such as tractors. They would have to be 18 to work at grain elevators, silos, and feedlots. The rules would not have applied to children working at farms owned by their parents, but they would have limited the paid jobs youngsters could do on neighbors' or relatives' farms.
John Myers, chief of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Administration's surveillance and field investigations branch, said it's unfortunate the agency dropped its proposal because of intense opposition from agricultural groups.
"I have not seen any youth working in other industries that are at higher risk," Mr. Myers said.
"If society says you have to be 16 to operate a car, I don't see how you can say it's any less sound advice that you have to be 16 to operate farm equipment," he added. "I suspect this will not be addressed again, and … we will continue to have youths dying on farms each year in situations that were perfectly preventable."
The push for tougher restrictions came at a time when fewer children are being injured on farms.
For every 1,000 U.S. farms, agriculture-related injuries to workers younger than 20 dropped by nearly half from 2001 to 2009, from 13.5 injuries to 7.2 injuries, according U.S. government figures. Injuries were most common among children ages 10 to 15, but they also dropped by nearly half during that period.
Farming groups attribute such declines to farmers' and ranchers' greater awareness of risks, but they add that it's vital children begin farm work at an early age so safety requirements become ingrained in them. Agriculture groups also note that rural children looking for summer jobs often have no option other than farm work and enhancing regulations could dampen the youngsters' enthusiasm for becoming farmers.