More than 1.5 million US farmworkers will be better protected in the years ahead because of a new regulations issued this week by the EPA. The agency’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) addresses the hazards related to pesticide exposure for farmworkers. The WPS was initially adopted by EPA in 1992, but considered inadequate by many affected workers and public health experts.
“In my experience as a farmworker, I have seen many people affected by exposure to chemicals,”
explained Miguel, who provided comments to EPA during the agency’s rulemaking process.
“I have heard of [people needing] liver transplants, people having asthma, severe allergies, headaches, women with miscarriages, or children with birth defects… What are these chemicals called? We do not know, because those of us who work in this type of job do not have access to that type of information, since our employers do not inform us of anything.”
(Miguel’s comments and others provided below appear in “Farmworkers Make Their Voices Heard in the Call for Stronger Protections from Pesticides,” an article published this month in the journal New Solutions.)
Workers in most industries received chemical “right-to-know” protections in 1983 when OSHA issued its Hazard Communication Standard. Farmworkers, however, were excluded from that regulation. This new EPA rule gives them some, but not all, of what is afforded to workers in the OSHA standard.
The new EPA rules will assist farmworkers in getting hazard information about the pesticides to which they are exposed and address some of the other weaknesses in the current WPS. The changes include:
- Requiring mandatory pesticide-safety training for farmworkers every 12 months instead of every five years.
- Stipulating additional content for the training program, such as routes through which pesticides can enter the body, symptoms of common types of pesticide poisoning, and emergency first aid for pesticide injuries or poisonings.
- Posting of pesticide safety information, such as the safety data sheet; active ingredient(s) of the pesticide; and the dates, times the application started and ended, and the location and description of the treated areas.
- Prohibiting anyone under age 18 to be a pesticide applicator.
The minimum age for farmworker to apply agricultural pesticides is a provision that was not initially proposed by EPA. Farmworkers, physicians, and others provided evidence of the need for that provision which compelled the agency to adopt it.
During the public comment period on the EPA proposal, farmworkers provided comments and testimony on all aspects of the new rule and the need for it. Selena Zalaya, whose parents are farmworkers, shared her thoughts on the training provisions:
“How do we expect farmworkers to remember things from a fifteen-minute video about pesticides, when this information is given once every five years? I believe more frequent pesticides trainings should be given, and it should be given in a more effective manner.”
About the minimum age for pesticide applicators, Leonardo said:
“I think applying pesticides is more harmful to a young person, because their bodies are still developing.”
Alicia spoke about her first few days on a particular farm:
“I felt dizzy and I got rashes on my arms. I had to go to the hospital. ….when they were spraying the plants, I do not know what type of liquid it was. …I like the work, but I don’t know how much it affects my health.”
I asked Amy Liebman, MPA, MA, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health with the Migrant Clinicians Network, about one particular new requirement. It will allow farmworkers to designate a representative who can act on their behalf to obtain certain pesticide information. She explained its significance with an example,
“There was an H2A worker in North Carolina who was poisoned. He had to go back to Mexico because he was sick. His doctor in Mexico was having trouble providing the appropriate care [because the physician didn’t know what chemicals the worker had been exposed.] Lawyers for the sick worker could not get the information from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture about the types of pesticides that were used.”
Under the new rule, a farmworker will be able to designate (in writing) a representative. That representative will be allowed to obtain, on the worker’s behalf and at no charge, a copy of the farm’s pesticide application and hazard information.
EPA proposed the new WPS in April 2014. As far as worker safety regulations go, this one was completed in lightning-fast time. Liebman, who is also the chair of the American Public Health Association’s Occupational Health and Safety Section, told me that the revisions:
“…are a really important step. It is a victory, but a modest one. We did not achieve parity with what other workers have, but we are still celebrating these important advances. Now we will turn our attention to the implementation and enforcement of the new WPS.”
Barring any legal challenges from industry groups or state agencies, the rules will be phased-in over the next two years.