Ayers, Whitlow & Dressler

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Report: North Carolina children exposed to unsafe farm work

Employment on a farm can entail long hours, hard work, risk of injury from work accidents, and exposure to pesticides and other potentially toxic substances. These occupational conditions and hazards are well known, but what may come as a surprise is that many of the workers who are subjected to these sometimes unsafe work conditions -- including on farms in North Carolina -- are children.

A recent report by a human rights organization has faulted tobacco farms in particular for placing children as young as seven years old in an unsafe working environment where they are exposed to extreme heat, unsanitary conditions, work hours of up to 14 hours a day, and a form of nicotine poisoning known as "green tobacco sickness" which occurs through skin absorption from handling tobacco plants.

Four states produce more than 90 percent of tobacco grown in the U.S. and North Carolina is one of them.

The report further criticizes tobacco farms for failing to take measures to safeguard child workers from work injury risks. It claims that children are often given tools such as axes and machetes to work with and occasionally work in close proximity to potentially dangerous machinery. In addition, they are not always given adequate safety instruction or protective gear. GTS, for example, can occur from handling tobacco without gloves.

According to the report, a contributing factor to the potentially dangerous conditions that children can face on tobacco farms is the looser standard that labor laws apply to agricultural worker safety. For example, there is no minimum age for children who work on small farms; children as young as 12 years old can work on any farm for any number of hours as long as they have a parent's permission to do so.

The organization that prepared the report has provided it to 10 companies that purchase tobacco grown in the United States. Unfortunately, these companies do not necessarily own or operate the tobacco farms. Their ability to take more decisive action to improve workplace safety on those farms may be limited beyond demanding that the growers provide a safer work environment.

Working in the agricultural industry can be present a number of risks to workers of any age. Any workers who have suffered an injury or illness while working may want to consider speaking with an attorney to explore their options for workers' compensation or negligence claims.

Source: KRDO, "11 years old and working on a tobacco farm," Saundra Young, May 17, 2014

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