Sam Hananel

WASHINGTON: Child labor groups say they are stunned and disappointed that the Obama administration is backing off a plan that would have prevented children from working on the most dangerous farm jobs.

Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, said the Labor Department’s decision Thursday to withdraw the proposed rules means more children will die in farm accidents that could have been prevented.

“There was tremendous heat, and I don’t think it helped that it was an election year,” he said. “A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue.”

Under pressure from farm groups and lawmakers from rural states, the Labor Department said it is withdrawing proposed rules that would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven farm equipment, including tractors. The rules also would prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain silos and stockyards.

The plan specifically excluded children who work on farms owned or operated by their parents. But the proposal still became a popular political target for Republicans who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.

“It’s good the Labor Department rethought the ridiculous regulations it was going to stick on farmers and their families,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “To even propose such regulations defies common sense and shows a real lack of understanding as to how the family farm works.”

The surprise move comes just two months after the Labor Department modified the rule in a bid to satisfy opponents.

The agency made clear it would exempt children who worked on farms owned or operated by their parents.

That didn’t appease farm groups like the American Farm Bureau that complained it would upset traditions in which many children work on farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives to reduce costs and learn how a farm operates.

The Labor Department said Thursday it was responding to thousands of comments that expressed concern about the impact of the changes on small family-owned farms.