EPA Moves to Expand Farm Worker Protections

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EPA proposes increasing safety standards to protect farm workers from hazardous pesticides.

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Two million American farm workers and their families are exposed to over 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides applied to crops each year, causing problems ranging from nausea and shortness of breath to cancer, infertility, and respiratory disorders.

These health problems from pesticide exposure persist even through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already has a farm worker protection standard to safeguard farm workers from pesticide risks. The EPA has acknowledged that even when farms follow the existing standard, the “risks to workers still exceed the Agency’s level of concern.” For that reason, the EPA recently proposed changes to its existing standard.

For years, farm worker advocacy organizations have pushed for more stringent regulations limiting pesticide exposure and increasing information disclosure about potential risks. The current EPA standard, adopted in 1992, lacks a requirement for posting no-entry signs around fields recently sprayed with pesticides unless a particular pesticide’s labeling requires posting. Instead, the Standard allows farms to either post no-barrier signs or orally warn farm workers of potentially hazardous conditions.

Farms are also not currently required to make safety information related to the hazards available to the workers or their representatives, such as a union representative. They also do not need to keep records of safety measures taken during pesticide applications.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA Administrator, recently said that the agency’s proposed revisions to the farm worker pesticide standard constitute “an important milestone for the farm workers who plant, tend and harvest the food that we put on our tables each day.” She stressed that her agency’s proposed revision “will afford farm workers similar health protections to those already enjoyed by workers in other jobs.”

The proposed regulation would require employers to post no-entry signs surrounding pesticide treated fields until the potential for hazardous exposure declines to a safe level. Areas of 25 to 100 feet surrounding the no-entry areas would also be required to protect farm workers from potential pesticide overspray and fumes. Farms would be required to keep detailed records of all pesticide applications, including the types of pesticides used, the application process, and farm worker training, for two years.

The proposed revisions would also bar farms from allowing children under 16 years old to handle any pesticides, with an exemption for family farms. Under the proposed Standard, farms would qualify under the family farm exemption if a farm operator employs an immediate family member who is a child. This, according to the EPA, would protect workers while also preserving the traditions of family farms.

The Agency also has proposed expanding the definition of immediate family members under the Standard. If this proposal were adopted, the EPA would consider grandparents, grandchildren, and in-laws as immediate family, which the Agency currently does not. Immediate family members and self-employed farm operators, according to a National Agricultural Statistics Service study, already make up two-thirds of farm workers under the current, less expansive definition, and would assumedly make up an even greater percentage if the EPA finalizes the proposed rule.

Although farm worker advocates generally agree that the proposed revision represents a positive development, some organizations are concerned that the proposal does not do enough to protect against pesticide exposure. Ronnie Green, senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, points out that while the proposed revision is long-overdue, the “update falls short of the more sweeping changes advocates envisioned.” It fails, for instance, to require medical monitoring of applicators handling toxic chemicals, sets 16, not 18, as a minimum age for those handling pesticides; and eliminates a requirement that growers display in a central location information on pesticides being applied.

Although the EPA did not directly discuss the medical monitoring concerns in its proposed regulation, the Agency did support its decisions to select 16 as the appropriate age and eliminate the centralized posting requirement. The proposal stated that raising the minimum age to 18 would result in slightly higher costs for the industry, estimated at “about $3.1 million annually, or $11 per agricultural establishment and $320 per commercial pesticide handling establishment per year.”

The EPA also stated that eliminating central posting requirements would reduce employers’ burdens by allowing them to keep records in a location that is “not subject to weathering and would not substantially increase the burden on workers and handlers seeking this information.” The Agency believes most workers do not often pass the central posting area because their workplace is located in a different part of the farm compound.

Originally scheduled to close on the 17th of June, the comment period has been extended until August 18, 2014, in response to requests from growers, industry, advocacy groups and states for additional time to provide input.