Between 10,000 and 20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur every year among the approximately 2 million agricultural workers in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To drive down the numbers of workers harmed by exposure to pesticides – including fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, rodent poisons, and sanitizers – the agency is announcing stronger protections for agricultural workers and their families working on farms forests, nurseries, and greenhouses.
The EPA’s revisions to the 1992 Agricultural Worker Protection Standard will provide farmworkers with similar health rules and standards that already protect workers in other industries. The revisions to the protections are the result of years of pesticide-related surveillance programs designed to monitor the effects of chemical pesticide exposures on agricultural workers.
The EPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) jointly conduct the surveillance, looking for signs of occupational pesticide-related illnesses and injuries or trends that may alert them to pesticide hazards not detected by the manufacturer at the time of testing.
The revisions to the Worker Protection Standard cover several different areas. Some of the major revisions are as follows:
- Annual mandatory training to inform farmworkers about the required protections afforded to them by federal regulations. Currently, such training is required just once every five years.
- Expanded training includes instructions to reduce take-home exposure from pesticides on work clothing and other safety topics.
- First-time ever minimum age requirement: Workers younger than 18 are prohibited from handling pesticides.
- Expanded mandatory posting of no-entry signs for the most hazardous pesticides. The signs prohibit entry into pesticide-treated fields until residues decline to a safe level.
- New no-entry application-exclusion zones up to 100 feet surrounding pesticide application equipment will protect workers and others from exposure to pesticide overspray.
- Requirement to provide more than one way for farmworkers and their representatives to gain access to pesticide application information and safety data sheets. This information must be centrally posted and available on request.
- Mandatory record keeping to improve the ability of states to follow up on pesticide violations and enforce compliance. Records of application-specific pesticide information, as well as farmworker training, must be kept for two years.
- The introduction of anti-retaliation provisions comparable to whistleblower protections enforced by the Labor Department.
- Changes in personal protective equipment will be consistent with the Labor Department’s standards for ensuring respirators are effective, including fit test, medical evaluation, and training on proper use.
- Specific amounts of water to be used for routine washing, emergency eye flushing and other decontamination, including eye wash systems for handlers at pesticide mixing/loading sites.
- Continue the exemption for farm owners and their immediate families with an expanded definition of immediate family.
The EPA says that every year, the actual number of occupational injuries and illnesses involving pesticide exposure that are reported fall between 1,800 and 3,000. However, the agency cautions that there is a vast underreporting of such incidents among agricultural workers, many of whom fear the loss of their job and other forms of retaliation.
“By better protecting our agricultural workers, the agency anticipates fewer pesticide exposure incidents among farmworkers and their family members,” the EPA said in a statement. “Fewer incidents means a healthier workforce and avoiding lost wages, medical bills, and absences from work and school. In addition, EPA is concerned about low level, repeated exposure to pesticides that may contribute to chronic illness.”
The majority of the revisions will go into effect approximately 14 months after the rule publishes in the Federal Register. This will give farmers and states time to adjust to the new requirements, as well as time for EPA and states to develop updated materials for training and other purposes. EPA will have an official effective date once the rule publishes in the federal register.