For the third time in five weeks, a 16-year-old boy has died after sustaining on-the-job injuries at an industrial site, as lawmakers in several states advocate loosening child labor laws that protect minors from hazardous work.
The latest teen death was Friday night at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, authorities said. It’s the third worker death at the plant since December 2020.
Duvan Tomas Perez, who NBC News reported moved to the U.S. from Guatemala six years ago, was cleaning machinery as part of a sanitation crew when he became trapped in equipment on a conveyor belt. He died at the scene, police and the poultry company said.
Duvan Tomas Perez, 16, died at a Mississippi poultry plant last week after becoming trapped in equipment on a conveyor belt, police said. Duvan was entering the ninth grade and “one of his greatest accomplishments was buying his own car,” according to his online obituary. Facebook
The company said that it appears that the child “should not have been hired” and that his age and identity were misrepresented on his hiring paperwork with an outside staffing company.
“We are devastated at the loss of life and deeply regret that an underage individual was hired without our knowledge. The company is undertaking a thorough audit with the staffing companies to ensure that this kind of error never happens again,” it said in a statement Thursday to HuffPost.
His death follows two other teens’ deaths in Wisconsin and Missouri.
Michael Schuls, 16, died on June 29 after sustaining injuries at the Florence Hardwoods logging company in Florence, Wisconsin. Michael was attempting to unjam a wood-stacking machine when he became pinned under machinery on a conveyor belt, resulting in what the coroner identified as traumatic asphyxiation, The Associated Press reported.
Michael Schuls, 16, died on June 29 after becoming pinned under machinery on a conveyor belt at a Wisconsin saw mill. GoFundMe
Will Hampton, 16, died on June 8 in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, after becoming injured while working at the Lee’s Summit Resource Recovery Park landfill. The high school sophomore became pinned between a tractor-trailer rig and its trailer, resulting in his death, police said in a statement.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating all three deaths, a Labor Department spokesperson confirmed to HuffPost.
OSHA has also made a referral to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division for possible child labor violations concerning hazardous occupations in the Wisconsin case and a separate referral in the Missouri case to determine if the child was legally employed.
Will Hampton, 16, died on June 8 after becoming pinned between a tractor-trailer rig and its trailer at a Missouri landfill. Will's obituary described him as being a hard worker who “recently discovered a passion and talent for mechanics and was excited for upcoming learning opportunities in this field.” GoFundMe
Federal labor laws allow children 16 and older to be employed in all occupations as long as the jobs are not declared hazardous by the secretary of labor. The Labor Department’s website features a list of such hazardous occupations and specifies that “most jobs” in meat and poultry plants ― including equipment cleaning ― are banned.
Minors are also prohibited from being employed “inside and outside of places of businesses that use machinery to process wood products,” with a few exceptions, including if an adult relative supervises the child.
The Wisconsin teen’s father also worked at the sawmill and was at the site that day, Green Bay station WBAY reported, though the child was alone in the building when the incident happened, and he wasn’t found until 17 minutes later, The AP reported.
In the case of the Mississippi teen killed, the child wasn’t working directly for Mar-Jac Poultry as he had been hired by an outside agency. These hiring companies often aren’t the most reliable when it comes to finding qualified, legal workers, said Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017.
“These temp agencies don’t have any scruples at all. They don’t have any national reputation to uphold. They’re just trying to sell workers, basically,” he told HuffPost. “And then the main company claims they had no idea, the temp agency [says it] was ‘fooled by false certifications.’ Well, obviously this kid did not look 18.”
OSHA has been going after this “to a certain extent,” he said, with the administration citing both the place of employment and the hiring company when a regulation is broken.
“Who could be more vulnerable than (A) children and (B) immigrant children?” - Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA
Barab partially blamed the nation’s ongoing shortage of labor for the hiring of children because employers are trying to avoid paying more for qualified workers.
“You have some employers who are basically going after the most vulnerable workers, the workers with the least ability to fight back or question anything. Who could be more vulnerable than (A) children and (B) immigrant children?” Barab said.
The COVID-19 pandemic, affordable child care, a rise in remote work and retiring workers are among the reasons cited for the labor shortage.
Regardless of the risks, lawmakers in several states have proposed weakening child labor protections in a bid to expand the workforce with low-paying labor.
In Wisconsin, where one of the three children died, lawmakers are advocating for lowering the age to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants to 14. It would be a nationwide first if approved, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Another bill introduced in Minnesota proposes allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work in or around construction sites.
In Iowa, the state Senate in April passed a bill that would allow children to work more days and longer hours, but in conflict with the current limits set by federal law, as Iowa State Daily reported.
The Biden administration back in April urged U.S. meat companies to ensure they are not unknowingly or knowingly hiring children illegally. This followed revelations that more than 100 children were working for a company that cleans slaughterhouses. The children’s work included handling hazardous equipment, like razor-sharp bone saws.
An estimated 160,000 children are injured annually in the U.S. while working. Of these injuries, 54,800 warrant emergency room treatment, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.