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Young workers face peril from sawmills to Christmas tree farms

December 17, 1997

EDITOR’S NOTE _ This is an abridged version of the fourth in a five-part series, ``Children for Hire,″ examining child labor in the United States.



AP National Writer

PORT ARTHUR, Texas (AP) _ Every five days in America, a child is killed on the job.

For 14-year-old Alexis Jaimes, that day was June 7, 1997.

The moment was 9:34 that Saturday morning on a construction site in this Gulf Coast town. As Alexis bent over to move hydraulic lines for the pile-driving crane he worked beneath, its 5,000-pound hammer broke loose and fell on him.

Frozen by the sight of the boy’s broken body, his back, legs and ribs crushed, a co-worker could only tell police, ``It happened very quickly.″

Yes and no.

True, the coroner concluded, Alexis died instantly. Yet his death, like those of 70 other children the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says are killed each year at work, resulted from factors long in the making.

This year, Ricky Rash, 16, a roofer’s helper, fell six stories to his death in Florida. Arthur McEachern, 17, was buried at an excavation site in Massachusetts. Both died on jobs the law deems too dangerous for their age.

At least four in 10 children killed on the job are doing work prohibited by federal child labor laws, according to NIOSH.

A total of 200,000 children are injured on the job annually, and a third of the injuries are serious enough to require emergency room treatment, according to NIOSH.

Children are injured or killed because they are inexperienced, or because employers don’t provide safety or skills training, or don’t know child labor law.

Joshua Henderson, 15, was electrocuted while removing a motor inside a Colorado car wash. His father, Mark Henderson, angrily repeats the warning of the motor manufacturer: ``Call an electrician.″ The car wash was cited for safety and child labor law violations.

Children are injured or killed because they are determined to prove themselves, to demonstrate independence.

Working alone at a Tennessee junkyard, a task banned by federal law, 16-year-old James Ford wanted to show he could winch up an old Buick by himself. ``As soon as I heard the metal twist,″ he says grimly now, ``I knew what was happening.″ The car’s fall left him paralyzed.

``What teen-ager doesn’t think they’re indestructible?″ says his lawyer, Thomas Whiteside. ``I think that’s why we still call them children.″

Children are injured or killed because parents, despite reservations, give in to kids’ pleading, then never suspect on-the-job danger until too late.

``It just didn’t have to happen,″ says Carl Simon, an Iowa farmer whose son Corey, 6, died in a fall from the cab of a tractor driven _ legally _ by a 9-year-old. Simon blames a faulty door latch and a lack of supervision, not the driver’s youth.

U.S. Labor Department officials say policing child labor hazards is a priority, but they say their enforcement staff is small.

Darlene Adkins of the National Consumers League questions the department’s commitment. ``If there were a toy that was harming 200,000 kids a year,″ she says, ``it’d be off the market.″

America’s more than 4 million working children, legal and illegal, encounter many dangers. Of those treated in emergency rooms, 54 percent are injured working in retail jobs, 20 percent in service jobs, and 7 percent in agriculture with the rest occurring in a variety of different industries, a recent study showed.

They are crushed by forklifts, burned while cooking or sliced by machetes they swing for hours as migrant field workers.

``You have to be going fast, cutting the trees, so that you can get good pay,″ says Iliana Sifuentes, 16. Her thumb and finger were hacked when her machete slipped as she trimmed branches on a Wisconsin Christmas tree farm last July.

Her severe cuts were bandaged without a doctor, and so, as is often the case, the injury was not recorded in government statistics.

Blades were in the hands of many child workers observed by The Associated Press: a curved hook that a 10-year-old raisin harvester held in California; the clippers an 11-year-old used to cut ferns in Florida; a foot-long knife wielded by a 15-year-old tomato plant cutter in Tennessee; a power saw operated by a 16-year-old boy in Ohio.

Power-saw use is illegal for workers under 18, as are 16 other types of hazardous jobs, including mining, roofing, sawmill work, most vehicle driving, manufacturing of explosives, demolition, and working near radioactive materials.

Violations persist in virtually every prohibited category. Businesses were cited 1,655 times last year, Labor Department figures show.

Studies show that youths are more likely than adults to get hurt at work. A Centers for Disease Control study of emergency room visits, for example, found that boys aged 16 to 17 were two times more likely than workers as a whole to suffer job-related injuries.

``The inexperience of younger workers may be a major factor in this group’s higher incidence of injury,″ the study said.

When 15-year-old Jamie Keith tried to leap a conveyor rolling lumber at a pallet company in Tennessee., he fell and struck his head. Stitched and bandaged, he was returned to the job the same day.

Why didn’t he refuse?

Sitting at a card table in his family’s stark trailer home, Jamie scoffs: ``Kids don’t say, `That’s not my job description.‴

THURSDAY: Those who employ children illegally generally get away with it.

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