By Jason Brudereck
In response to a plan that would have limited some children from working on farms, Penn State will lead a two-year effort to develop a national safety training curriculum, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack said Tuesday.
The training plan is meant to address farmers' concerns regarding the previous proposal from the U.S. Department of Labor that would have kept some children from operating tractors and doing other agricultural work, Vilsack said in a telephone interview with the Reading Eagle.
The Labor Department withdrew that original plan in 2012, much to the relief of farmers in Berks County who had denounced it.
The issue would have resurfaced had the agriculture community not reacted, said Mena Hautau, educator at the Berks County office of the Penn State Extension.
"What they're trying to do is be ahead of the curve," Hautau said of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Politically, if they don't do this, the issue will raise its ugly head again. Groups out there will come back and say, 'We shouldn't have youth working in agriculture.' "
A $600,000 grant from the USDA to fund the Penn State effort will be announced today at the North American Agricultural Safety Summit in Minneapolis.
"I hope that people understand we followed through on the promise we made last year to address this in a comprehensive and holistic way," Vilsack said.
Agriculture has seven times more deaths per worker than in the general workforce, he said.
In 2012, there were 28 farm fatalities in Pennsylvania, about average in recent years.
One of them was a 1 1/2-year-old boy who was killed on his family's Maxatawny Township farm in April 2012 after he crawled under a soil spreader and somehow turned it on. The death was ruled accidental.
Vilsack said Penn State will work with other universities and groups involved with farm safety to identify gaps in curriculum, state certifications and testing, and how to sustain the effort after the grant is depleted.
The standardized curriculum will be for use by anyone who teaches farm safety, said Aida B. Balsano, a program leader in USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Current curriculums are outdated, Hautau said.
"They're going to modernize it," Hautau said. "We already have a curriculum, but it's ancient. I borrow stuff out of Iowa and I get stuff out of Purdue. I cobble it together."
Fatal agriculture accidents decreased 16 percent to 475 in 2012 from 566 in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But agriculture still retained the highest fatal injury rate out of all other lines of work, with 21.2 deaths per 100,000 workers.
About 16,100 youths were injured on farms in 2009, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.