EPA’s Farmworker Protection Standard Proposal -- An (Insufficient) Step Forward

On March 19, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its proposal to revise the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which was first announced by the agency on Feb. 20. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the proposal “a step forward” in a blog post, and the proposal does contain several significant improvements to EPA’s 1992 standard regarding farmworker protections from pesticide exposure. However, the proposal excludes several important protections needed to improve farmworker safety and includes a provision on worker information access that represents a step backward.

The proposal responds to a 2011 petition from the groups Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice on behalf of several farmworker and public advocacy organizations requesting improved protections from pesticide exposure for farmworkers. Farmworker exposure to pesticides and their residues is a significant health concern. Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce nationwide. The EPA proposal notes that “a sizeable portion of the agricultural workforce may be exposed occupationally to pesticides and pesticide residues.” When EPA developed the 1992 WPS rule, the agency estimated that occupational exposure to pesticides poisons as many as 20,000 farmworkers each year while noting there are likely many more cases due to substantial underreporting. A more recent study reported that an average of six out of 10,000 farmworkers experience acute pesticide poisoning, illness, or injury each year.

The proposal’s improvements over the existing rule include:

  • Increasing the frequency of required farmworker pesticide training from every five years to annually,  and requiring that employers keep records of farmworker pesticide training for two years;

  • Expanding farmworker training requirements to include providing information on avoiding transferring pesticide residues from their clothing, bodies, and shoes to their homes, vehicles, and family members;

  • Establishing new no-entry  buffer areas surrounding pesticide-treated fields to protect workers from pesticide spray and fumes;

  • Expanding the scope of information and revising the time that pesticide records must be kept from one month to two years to improve states’ ability to follow-up on pesticide violations and enforce compliance; and

  • Improving personal protection equipment respirator use by requiring application of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's standards for ensuring respirators are effective, including fit test, medical evaluation, and training.

Despite these important improvements to the WPS, the proposal fails to address important protections that farmworkers and their advocates, as well as 52 members of Congress, have pressed EPA to adopt. In addition, the proposal takes a step backward in removing the requirement that hazard information about the pesticide(s) applied be posted in a central location for worker information.

The needed improvements to worker protection include:

  • Requiring medical monitoring for farmworkers who handle organophosphate and N-methyl carbamate pesticides, two particularly dangerous classes of pesticides. Employers should give workers the option of blood tests to monitor exposure to these neurotoxic chemicals before symptoms or illness occurs. Since California and Washington implemented a system to monitor workers who handle these types of pesticides, the number of poisonings involving these pesticides has gone down considerably in those states.

  • Requiring posting of signs (rather than verbal notice) notifying workers about not reentering fields where pesticides that require a 24-hour period before reentry have been applied (rather than limiting the signage requirement to the two-day waiting period in the proposal). Monterrey County, CA requires posting of fields where pesticides that require a 24-hour wait is applied and found that this approach resulted in a significant reduction in pesticide-related illness due to early reentry, which is a major cause of farmworker pesticide exposure and illness. 

  • Requiring that pesticide handlers be at least 18 years old, rather than proposed minimum age of 16. As EPA’s proposal notes, “Differences in the decision-making of adolescents and adults leads to the conclusion that handlers who are adolescents may take more risks than those who are adults.” EPA also notes that “requiring handlers to be 18 years of age or older would prevent youth under 18 from being exposed while performing handling activities and would reduce risks to other persons and the environment from misapplication owing to users’ poor judgment or decision-making skills. This option would harmonize the age requirements for pesticide handlers with the minimum age requirements for workers performing hazardous jobs in other industries.”

  • Reinstate the requirement for pesticide hazard information be posted in a central location where farmworkers will know where to find it, rather than putting the burden on the farmworker to ask the employer for the information as currently proposed.

While EPA’s sorely overdue proposal contains several important advances in protecting farmworkers from pesticide exposure, it will be important for the agency to address essential improvements when finalizing the rule. EPA will accept comments on the proposed rule until June 17.

photo credit: Patricia Carrillo

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Medical monitoring is a invasive tool. REI sign posting follows the necessity of entering a field so that farmworkers may do their work. If EPA had proposed 18 years for handlers the proposed rules NEVER would have seen the light of day. Most farmworkers do not gather at a central location. They drive to a specific area/field and are constantly on the move. In some cases yes, they congregate, but the majority of central posting locations are in fact not in a area where farmworkers congregate. While the WPS is a complex rule, this article fails to understand the nuances of what actually occurs in the field, along the compromises necessary for making policy change in DC. FAIL.