Child tobacco field workers at risk of workplace illnesses

Many North Carolina residents would agree that children belong in fields playing, not in tobacco fields working as farmers. However, there are a number of children, often under the age of 16, working 12-hour shifts on tobacco fields. This work leaves them exposed to toxic materials and at risk of developing serious workplace diseases.

Despite the decline of smoking across the country, North Carolina is still the country’s top producer of tobacco. Even though tobacco farmers insist they comply with federal regulations regarding labor and seldom hire people under the age 18, there is no governmental regulation regarding the matter, leaving it open for farmers to hire younger workers and the practice is still prevalent. For years, public health advocates have attempted to ban children under the age of 16 from tobacco fields, but the move has been met with swift opposition from many corners.

Working at a tobacco field involves grueling hours under tough working conditions, including high temperatures, harmful exposure to nicotine and other chemicals and pressure from employers. For example, when it rains, the tobacco leaves become wet, dissolving the nicotine and leading to symptoms such as nausea and dizziness. Long-term exposure can lead to serious health problems. Recognizing these dangers, North Carolina lawmakers have approved funding to increase awareness about the dangers posed to children from working around agricultural equipment and pesticides.

Occupational diseases do not always become visible and identifiable immediately-at times it takes years for a disease to develop. However, if a disease is a result of exposure to hazardous materials at the workplace, whether working indoors or outdoors, an injured employee may have the option to file a workers’ compensation claim. This claim not only highlights the dangers involved with the job but may also make compensation available to cover medical costs associated with the injury or illness.

Source: New York Times, “Just 13, and working risky 12-hour shifts in the tobacco fields,” Steven Greenhouse, Sept. 6, 2014

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