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Teen boy dies following industrial accident at northern Wisconsin sawmill

OSHA is investigating, has made a referral to labor department for possible child labor violations

Crime scene tape
Police tape cordons off a crime scene in Philadelphia on Dec. 14, 2018. Matt Rourke/AP Photo

A 16-year-old boy died Saturday from injuries sustained in an industrial accident at a sawmill in a northern Wisconsin County.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the fatality, and has made a referral to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division for possible child labor violations concerning hazardous occupations, according to Scott Allen, the Labor Department’s regional director for public affairs and media relations.

The Florence County Sheriff’s Office was called last Thursday to a report of an unresponsive teenager at the Florence Hardwoods logging company.

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The Sheriff’s Office says the teen was transferred to a local hospital before being sent to Children’s Wisconsin, a pediatric hospital in Milwaukee. He died from his injuries Saturday.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends, students and co-workers,” Florence County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Teresa Chrisman said in a statement.

The Department of Labor and the Sheriff’s Office are not providing additional information at this time. Florence Hardwoods did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Officials have not released the teen’s name.

A GoFundMe post set up for the family said the rural community in Florence is “in absolute shock.” A comment on the page from a family member said the boy is an organ donor, and his loss will help “bring new life to seven more people.”

The death comes amid a push over the last two years to loosen regulations governing what jobs minors can perform in the workplace. Lawmakers in 14 states — including Wisconsin — have proposed rolling back child labor laws, according to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute.

“The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections,” the organization wrote in a May blog post. “And the recent uptick in state legislative activity is linked to longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country.”

State officials say child labor complaints more than quadrupled from 2018 to 2022. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division received 18 minor employment complaints in 2018 and 86 complaints last year, Jennifer Sereno, the department’s communications director, told Wisconsin Public Radio in March.

Over the same period, the U.S. Labor Department says it’s seen a 69 percent increase nationally in cases of children being illegally employed during the same period.

The number of federal child labor violations in Wisconsin has ebbed and flowed since 2018, according to the department’s Wage and Hour Division. The department identified 64 violations in 2018, 157 in 2019, 69 in 2020, 113 in 2021 and 92 in 2022.

In February, a Wisconsin-based sanitation company was fined $1.5 million for employing more than 100 children who federal investigators said were working in dangerous conditions cleaning meat packing plants.

Compared to some of its neighbors, Wisconsin had the second most child labor violations, averaging 99 per year since 2018. Illinois averaged 52.8 violations per year, Michigan averaged 260.4 and Minnesota averaged 39.6.

In Wisconsin, minors are prohibited from working in many occupations in logging and sawmills. According to the state Department of Workforce Development, children under 18 are prohibited from entering a sawmill building. They are also not allowed to work felling or bucking timber, collection or transporting logs, operating or assisting in operating power-driven machinery, handling or using explosives, working on trestles, working on portable sawmills, working in lumberyards used for storing green lumber or using a chainsaw.