EPA tightens pesticide safety rules for farm workers

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2015 - The EPA announced Monday it will prohibit children from handling pesticides and require farm workers to complete pesticide safety training more frequently, bolstering protections for 2 million U.S. farm laborers and their families.

The revisions to EPA's Worker Protection Standard - the only changes since the standard was instituted in 1992 - were released in their final form today during a press conference. “What we're announcing today has been a long time coming,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters. “Protecting our nation's farm workers from harmful pesticides exposure is part of EPA's mission to ensure equal protection for all Americans.”

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Each year, between 1,800 and 3,000 potentially preventable pesticide exposure incidents are reported on farms, nurseries and commercial forestland, and many more go unreported, according to EPA.

“These incidents lead to sick days, lost wages, medical bills, and absences from work and school,” McCarthy said. “We estimate that known and acute agricultural worker illnesses cost about $10 billion to $15 billion every year, and the actual costs we know are much higher.”

The updates included in the agency's final rule include:  

  • Prohibiting children under the age of 18 from handling pesticides.
  • Requiring farm laborers to attend “workers' rights” trainings annually instead of every five years. The training includes instruction on how to reduce “take home” pesticide exposures.
  • Mandatory posting of “no entry” signs in fields that have been treated with the most hazardous pesticides.
  • Mandatory record-keeping to improve states' ability 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.
  • Anti-retaliation protection for whistle blowers, whether U.S. citizens or otherwise.

The rule's provisions are “common sense, practical solutions that will not disrupt agriculture or adversely impact our nation's farms,” McCarthy said. EPA worked with USDA on the rule to make sure the cost of compliance “is very reasonable” for farmers. McCarthy noted that large farms would only have to pay “between $300 and $400” to meet the standards, and on smaller farms, the cost “is half that.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation disagreed. In a statement, Paul Schlegel, AFBF's  director of environment and energy policy, accused the EPA of “piling regulatory costs on farmers and ranchers that bear little if any relation to actual safety issues.”

The Agricultural Retailers Association made a statement as well, claiming the revised rule ignores industry comments and “opens new doors of potential liability” without improving worker safety. ARA also said that the EPA “substantially - and deliberately - underestimated the cost” of increasing the frequency and depth of farm worker trainings.

On the other side of the issue is Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers, who was also on today's call. He said “today's announcement is a dream come true.”

Rodriquez told reporters that farm workers in the U.S. have been “excluded from major federal labor laws since the 1930s.” He said that even though farm workers have been integral to the movements that banned the use of toxic pesticides like DDT, it has taken decades to secure more comprehensive pesticide protections for farm workers, particularly through the EPA.

“Farm worker communities often represent underserved, low-income and primarily minority communities that are disproportionately impacted by pesticide exposure through their occupation,” McCarthy said. “We will not turn our backs on the people that help feed this nation.”

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