North Carolina is one of four states that grows nearly all of the tobacco produced in the United States each year. In order to successfully harvest the crop, farm hands must cut each individual tobacco plant which are planted close together and grow quite tall. While this doesn’t seem dangerous, it actually has been the source of serious workplace illnesses for North Carolina workers — in particular, for child farm hands.

Under federal employment laws, children 13-years-old and older can work in agricultural jobs without the permission of their parents. Children 12-years-old and younger can also pick crops outside of school hours with their parent’s permission. This means that many children are working in North Carolina’s farm fields.

The problem with the tobacco crop is that it contains nicotine — a dangerous poison. Unlike other hazardous material that have to be digested to affect the body, nicotine is absorbed through the skin. Therefore, simply touching enough of the plant will make a person sick. With enough exposure nicotine causes skin rashes, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, loss of appetite and trouble breathing. In many cases, it causes children to vomit which increases their risk of heat stroke in the hot North Carolina sun. One study found that as many as two-thirds of child tobacco workers had suffered from nicotine poisoning while working in the fields.

In order to prevent nicotine poisoning, protective gear must be provided. However, many farms do not use these protections and workers are forced to cover themselves in garbage bags.

North Carolina workers — even child workers — should understand their rights when it comes to workplace injuries and illnesses. Employers do not have the right to treat them however they like. When accidents occur, compensation may be available through the workers’ compensation system to help workers recover.

Source: Healthline, “US Child Workers Sickened from Picking Nicotine-Filled Tobacco Leaves,” Cameron Scott, July 27, 2014