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Teens and hazardous jobs: House Democrats question DOL proposal to ease restrictions

teenage boy
Photo: alptraum/iStockphoto

Washington — A sizable contingent of House Democrats is expressing concerns with the Department of Labor’s proposal to allow certain 16- and 17-year-olds to perform hazardous jobs, in a letter sent Aug. 1 to Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

Among the 47 legislators who signed the letter are Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee; Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), ranking member of the Subcommitee on Workforce Protections; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), ranking member on the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who wrote his own letter to Acosta on May 23 on the same subject, is another signee.

In its most recent regulatory agenda, DOL states that it plans to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking in October, titled Expanding Apprenticeship and Employment Opportunities for 16 and 17-Year Olds Under the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act).

FLSA prohibits 16- and 17-year-old workers from performing certain hazardous jobs outside of the agricultural industry, but provides limited exemptions for apprentices and student learners working “under certain conditions,” the regulatory agenda entry states.

DOL intends to consider whether Hazardous Occupations Orders “should be updated to reflect the current economic and work environments and to allow for safe and meaningful apprenticeship opportunities and student-learner programs.”

The letter from the Democrats states that a related NPRM, Expanding Employment, Training, and Apprenticeship Opportunities for 16- and 17-Year-Olds in Health Care Occupations under [FLSA], was undergoing OMB review as of July 14.

According to Ellison’s letter, 17 Hazardous Occupations Orders restrict younger workers in areas such as coal mining or fighting forest fires. He notes that because of those laws, work-related deaths among teens dropped to 27 a year in 2015 and 2016 from 72.5 a year in 1999 and 2000.

The Aug. 1 letter cites an 18-year decline in occupational fatalities for teens ages 15 to 17, according to a NIOSH study published in 2017. “Weakening protections for young workers could reverse the progress of lowering fatalities among young workers and further jeopardize their health and safety,” it states. “Workplace safety laws and the Department’s [Hazardous Occupation Orders (HOs)] have made a difference in saving lives and limbs of young workers.”

The legislators are concerned that NIOSH has not been given the opportunity to formally review any of the proposals, which they claim was done in 2010 and 2011 when the DOL proposed changes to the HOs.

They also ask three questions, seeking a response by Aug. 15:

  1. Has DOL secured a formal NIOSH review of the scientific literature and data regarding the particular modifications to the Hazardous Occupation Orders currently pending at OMB? Has such review been requested for other proposals in development?
  2. If not, when will DOL secure a scientific review? Is DOL proposing to undertake such review before or after the NPRM has been issued?
  3. Has DOL provided funds to NIOSH to conduct the necessary scientific reviews that would be used to inform DOL and the public regarding any proposed changes? If funds have not been provided, please advise whether DOL has budgeted funds for this purpose for fiscal year 2018. If so, how much has been budgeted?

“While we believe in expanding job opportunities for young workers, I am sure you would agree this should not be done at the expense of their health, safety or lives,” the lawmakers wrote.

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