The Department of Labor wants to scale back child labor protections to let 16- and 17-year-olds work longer hours in hazardous jobs.
The agency is expected to propose a new rule that allows teens to be trained for longer hours in dozens of jobs that the government has barred them from doing, including operating trash compactors, chainsaws, and meat slicers, according to Bloomberg Law, which obtained a summary of the draft regulation. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds would still be barred from those jobs, but they would be allowed to do the hazardous work as part of certain apprenticeship programs.
The new rule would expand the agency’s current exemption, which lets teens do some hazardous work only as part of an apprenticeship or student learning program — usually no longer than an hour a day. The new rule would remove the time limit, according to Bloomberg. The idea is to give teens more training, and businesses more flexibility, in apprenticeships. But critics say it will lead to more teen deaths and injuries at work, which generally had been declining.
Under the law, illegal child labor includes scenarios where “any employee between the ages of sixteen and eighteen years is employed by an employer in any occupation which the Secretary of Labor shall find and by order declare to be particularly hazardous for the employment of children between such ages or detrimental to their health or well-being.”
The Department of Labor has a long list of jobs that are considered too dangerous for 16- and 17-years-olds, including coal mining and operating forklifts. But it has several exemptions for youths who are supervised in apprenticeship programs, though they can only do the dangerous work for a limited amount of time each day.
The Trump administration thinks these rules are too strict and keep teens from learning skills they need if they decide not to go to college.
“The Department proposes to safely launch more family-sustaining careers by removing current regulatory restrictions on the amount of time that apprentices and student learners may perform HO-governed work,” the agency stated in a summary of the draft rule, obtained by Bloomberg. The rule change would benefit manufacturers and construction companies that traditionally use apprenticeships.
Health experts have warned the Labor Department about the safety risks involved in letting teenagers work certain types of jobs, even under close supervision. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested limiting exemptions for underage workers even further in some types of jobs. For example, the agency wanted the Department of Labor to completely prohibit minors from doing any kind of roofing or excavation work, even as part of a training program — two suggestions that were not adopted. Current rules bar minors from taking those jobs but allow them as part of an apprenticeship.
Research has shown that young workers are more likely to hurt themselves. The CDC cites three reasons: First, their bodies are not fully developed, and they may not have the strength to safely operate machinery designed for adults. Second, most safety gear, such as goggles and hard hats, are not usually designed to fit younger workers. And third, young people’s brains are not fully developed and are more likely to underestimate the dangers of work.
In the past few decades, the number of 16- and 17-year-old workers who have died on the job has been dropping, though it started to tick back up in 2015. That year, 12 deaths were reported, and 17 deaths were reported in 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most deaths were related to injuries from vehicles, equipment, and exposure to harmful substances, though the deaths are not broken down by industry.