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EPA Aims To Better Protect Farm Workers From Pesticide Exposure


The Environmental Protection Agency wants to improve farm worker safety when it comes to pesticide use and has proposed revisions to its Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides first established in 1992.

Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Jim Jones says the proposed revisions, which carry a 90-day public comment period, aim to protect the nation’s 2 million farm workers and their families from pesticide exposure.

“This rule covering farms, forests, nurseries, and greenhouses has not been updated in 20 years, and certainly for many it is long overdue,” Jones says.

Amy Liebman is director of Environmental and Occupational Health at Austin, Texas-based Migrant Clinician’s Network.

“For far too long, this essential labor force has been treated as second class, and we’re encouraged that these changes will finally afford farm workers stronger safeguards to protect their health, their safety, and their families’ health,” says Liebman.

The EPA’s Jones says the following are a few of the key proposed revisions.

“First, annual mandatory training, rather than once every five years, to inform farm workers about the protections they are afforded under the law and have the tools they need to protect themselves and their families from exposure to harmful pesticides,” Jones says. “Second, mandatory posting of no entry signs for the most hazardous pesticides. The signs prohibit entry into pesticide treated fields until residues decline. Third, a first ever minimum age requirement – children under 16 will be prohibited from handling pesticides.”

Chris Pawelski is a fourth-generation onion farmer, and owns Pawelski Farms in Orange County’s Black Dirt region. He says he plans to comment on the proposed revisions and commends many aspects, such as increasing training to once a year, which Pawelski already practices.

“I do it every year for my workers versus every five years. So, I want them to be aware of it, even though on my farm, and many of my neighbors’ farms, our workers do not handle pesticides – they don’t mix, they don’t apply, that’s done by my father, brother and I, Pawelski says. “But I still want them to be aware, and especially for situations like when the crop duster happens to come by, I want them to be fully… understand, and trained to get out of the way, leave the field.”

However, he says he is concerned about one of the proposals – mandatory posting of signs symbolizing no entry into areas treated with the most hazardous pesticides.

“In the case of farms in the Black Dirt, you have small, five-acre fields, you have multiple entry points – those fields are back and front end – you’re talking about putting up a lot of signs and taking down and putting up and taking down. That’s one thing,” says Pawelski. “Also, the public sometimes passes through in a lot of the farming areas and seeing signs up that state that there’s hazardous material there doesn’t really connote something that’s a very positive message, or kind of stigmatizes things a little bit that may not be necessary.”

He says in his case, such a regulation would entail putting up some 20 to 30 signs. The EPA’s Jones says such signs would display a universally understood symbol.

“A farm worker going into a field that’s been treated during a reentry interval we have found is one of the two biggest causes of acute exposures,” Jones points out.

He says the following proposed revision would address the second cause – exposure to pesticides from pesticide drift outside the treated area.

“New, no entry buffer areas surrounding pesticide treated fields on farms will protect farm workers and others from exposure from pesticide overspray and fumes,” says Jones.

Other proposed revisions pertain to respirator use and recordkeeping. Again, the Migrant Clinician’s Network’s Liebman.

“Currently, farm workers are not afforded the same protections as other workers. In fact, they are specifically excluded from most of the regulations that protect other workers in this country,” says Liebman.

In addition, she says farm workers need better protections because the health risks from pesticide exposure, both short and long term, are numerous.

An EPA spokeswoman says it is the agricultural employer; that is, the farmer, who would bear the cost of implementing any adopted regulations. She says the states should have no more cost than they do now, such as for inspections and enforcement. The EPA’S Jones hopes to finalize the regulations about one year from now.

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