Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) and hazardous work of children in agriculture

Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous sectors in terms of occupational safety and health, irrespective of the age of the worker. Although some agricultural tasks are suitable, it is important to bear in mind that those below 18 years require special protection. Until the late teens, children’s minds and bodies are still developing and therefore they absorb toxic substances more easily, retaining them longer. Their growth and functioning of their nervous system can be impaired by certain agricultural chemicals. Children also have higher energy and fluid requirements and are more susceptible to dehydration. Some of the effects may not become evident until adulthood. The physical strain and repetitive movements associated with many agricultural tasks can deform bones and injure ligaments and muscles, especially in the back, causing life-long disabilities.

These special vulnerabilities of children and youth must be taken into account in all types of agricultural work: subsistence farming and fishing, industrial operations, contract growing for the international market, etc. Migrant workers are especially at risk. The line between what is acceptable work for children and what is hazardous can easily be crossed.

ILO Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), Convention No. 187, ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention No. 155, and ILO Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention No. 184 provide guidance on OSH and on national policies and systems to promote better OSH. Article 16 of the Convention No.184 addresses young workers and hazardous work, and the ILO Safety and Health in Agriculture Recommendation No. 192 calls for prevention of children from engaging in hazardous activities and for health surveillance measures for young workers, where appropriate.

Increased use of agricultural chemicals and motorized agricultural machinery in recent years, especially by farmers in developing countries, has resulted in increased rates of injury and poisoning among child workers. Countries lacking adequate infrastructure to monitor the import and use of these chemicals are particularly vulnerable. In 1998, after three decades of negotiations supported by FAO and UNEP, the Rotterdam Convention was finally adopted with the aim of protecting human health and the environment from the risks posed by pesticides and industrial chemicals. The Convention establishes that workers have a right to know about the chemicals they use, and encourages policies based on information about exposure effects. The Rotterdam Convention in conjunction with ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182 together provide a strong platform for advocacy and action to protect the health and safety of young people in agriculture.

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