Youngsters have pitched in on farms for generations. The age-old tradition is nothing new.

So it was no surprise when backlash from farmers and ranchers stifled a pitch led by the U.S. Labor Department to ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven farm equipment, including tractors, and keep those younger than 18 from working in feedlots, grain silos and stockyards.

Even though the proposal would have applied only to youngsters working on farms not owned by their parents, critics said such rules would alter farm life dramatically.

It’s easy to see how farmers would resist such change. After all, many grew up on farms and learned the ropes as children. Farm chores became a way of life from the day they were deemed old enough to help.

On the other hand, federal officials seeking the stricter rules believed such a move would reduce deaths and accidents related to farm work.

Studies have shown the injury rate on the farm highest among adults older than 65 (slower reaction time), and children age 15 and younger (they’re less experienced). According to the Child Labor Coalition, three-quarters of working children younger than 16 who died of work-related injuries in 2010 were in agriculture.

Even those who opposed the proposed rules for young farm workers have to acknowledge a need to improve on those statistics.

Accidents that occur when operating machinery — tractors, in particular — remain a leading cause of farm-related deaths for all ages.

As with any business hoping to improve work practices and stay viable, farm operations must continue to evolve.

Enacting new ways to make farm work safer for all ages — from children on up — has to be the top priority, regardless of how such moves would change tradition on the farm.

–The Garden City Telegram, Kansas, April 30

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