The U.S. Department of Labor is showing some willingness to pull back on its first upgrade in safety standards for children working in agriculture since the 1970s.

In a Wednesday media briefing, a labor official said there would be a new proposal dealing with parental exemptions from the new rules based on "the multitude of comments we've received, particularly from rural communities and owners of family farms."

Another public comment period, typically 60 days, will follow this summer.

But a spokesman for the state's largest farm organization said the federal watchdog needs to back off much further in responding to a torrent of objections from parents and others who live where agricultural work gets done.

"For the Department of Labor to only take care of this little piece, in our opinion, is kind of a slap in the face," said Jordan Dux of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation.

Federal regulators said in November and again Wednesday that they're trying to respond to studies that show children are significantly more likely to be killed when working on farms and ranches than while working in all other industries combined.

But the Farm Bureau and other Nebraska farm organizations say the original response still goes way too far.

For example, according to critics, it threatens the jobs of thousands of teenagers who detassel corn during their summer vacations, and it makes no allowances for FFA students who tend to livestock on farms their parents don't own or occupy.

The potential laid out Wednesday for adjusting rules appears limited to who, besides parents, might qualify for a parental exemption on the basis of what the Labor official described as "substantial ownership" of property where children younger than 16 are working.

Part of the original department intent was to address situations in which non-family corporations supervise children.

"That parent," said the Labor Department official, "is in a unique role or position to look out for the welfare of that child."

Justin Feldman, a worker and health safety advocate for Public Citizen in Washington, said his organization wants more safeguards on agricultural work deemed too hazardous for children.

Feldman saw the Wednesday announcement on the parental exemption as a fairly minor concession to critics.

"My opinion is that there's opposition to these rules, these very important rules," he said, "and the Department of Labor wants to see them go through. And agri-business groups were pushing on this point more than any other point."

Some agricultural organizations are reacting too strongly to a situation in which enforcement isn't going to happen anyway, Feldman said.

"I challenge anyone to find a single instance where a person was fined for employing his own child or even employing his own relative.

"They're not about to go arrest Grandma for employing her grandson, because he's working on a roof that's 21 feet tall, rather than 20."

The Farm Bureau's Dux objected to that point of view.

That amounts to saying, "Why don't you just go ahead and break the law anyway?" he said. "And I will tell you that farmers and ranchers want to comply with the letter of the law."

Furthermore, there are many proposed changes in child labor laws for agriculture that have nothing to do with parental exemptions, Dux said.

"There's a rule that prevents kids from going on a ladder that's over 6 feet tall."

Another rule appears to place major restrictions on working with machinery. What's left, "in our definition, means a battery-powered screwdriver or a flashlight."

The National Farmers Union sounded more agreeable to the range of possible adjustments by the Labor Department.

"We must ensure," the Farmers Union said in a prepared statement, "that only those who are older and understand the risks are able to perform some of the most dangerous tasks associated with agriculture, such as working inside a grain storage facility."

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com