Labor Department Wants to Relax Hazardous Work Limits for Teen Workers

The Trump Labor Department wants to let under-age teenagers work with dangerous equipment for hours at a time as part of their apprenticeship training, upsetting decades of established safety rules.

Examples of occupations that would let 16- and 17-year-olds jump in include roofing work, trash compactor operations and use of power-driven machines such as mini-grinders, Bloomberg Law reports.

 As David Letterman used to say, what could possibly go wrong?

 The recently released annual "Death on the Job" report makes it plain that even under current safety protocols, too many workers die on the job. Those deaths are disproportionately occurring in the construction industry and are disproportionately happening to immigrant workers. Moreover, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is already so under-staffed that it would take well over 100 years for inspectors to do routine checks at every business in Texas. 

Chances are when you see OSHA around, someone has already died or come close to it. To this situation, we are going to add teenagers? If insurance companies charge multiples of the standard premium when licensed teens drive a car, what might they do when a teen is handed a running chainsaw?

Letting younger teenagers spend hours on the job one accidental move away from decapitation or a deadly fall is a recipe for disaster.

Brother Leonard Aguilar of the Texas Building & Construction Trades Council said the proposal would set a dangerous precedent. 

 Noting that union apprenticeship programs have set the high-ground standard for safe training in the U.S., Aguilar said, "I don't know of any union that is asking for this. The proposed Labor Department rule would open the door to more accidents and deaths. Also, it would open the door to further erosion of child labor rules that have stood the test of time."

Bloomberg Law says current exemptions that let teens do some hazardous work are generally limited to one hour per day:

The Labor Department plans to unwind decades-old youth labor protections by allowing teenagers to work longer hours under some of the nation's most hazardous workplace conditions, sources familiar with the situation told Bloomberg Law.

The DOL will propose relaxing current rules-known as Hazardous Occupations Orders (HOs)-that prohibit 16- and 17-year-old apprentices and student learners from receiving extended, supervised training in certain dangerous jobs, said the two sources. That includes roofing work, as well as operating chainsaws, and various other power-driven machines that federal law recognizes as too dangerous for youth younger than 18.

The sources' accounts were corroborated by a summary of a draft regulation obtained by Bloomberg Law...

Currently, 16- to 17-year-old apprentices and high school students in vocational programs can receive limited exemptions to perform work in some of the hazardous occupations. Those exemptions generally don't exceed an hour a day.

The regulatory initiative, which hasn't been previously announced, fits with the Trump administration's broader goal of expanding earn-as-you-learn apprenticeship programs by replacing government red tape with industry-generated standards. It is also likely to have at least some bipartisan support from Democrats eager to create job opportunities for youth who aren't on track to attend a four-year university.

But the effort will receive sharp criticism among child labor advocates and former government officials, who say the rule would erase decades of progress in reducing youth occupational fatalities and injuries. Some also worry it would lead companies to abuse their newfound regulatory leniency by pushing lower-paid, younger workers into hazardous jobs and ignoring the tough-to-enforce supervision terms...

A former WHD senior official who spent 20 years enforcing child labor law didn't mince words when learning of the agency's rulemaking intentions.

 "When you find 16-year-olds running a meat slicer or a mini grinder or a trash compactor, we know kids are severely injured in those circumstances," Michael Hancock, who left the WHD in 2015 to represent workers at the plaintiff firm Cohen Milstein in New York, told Bloomberg Law. "That's why the laws exist in the first place."

"Now we're saying, 'We're going to open those hazards up to kids; we hope that the employer is going to follow the law to a T and make sure the kid is being closely supervised,'" added Hancock, who worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations. "I think that stretches credulity to think that's how it's actually going to work."