(Beyond Pesticides, February 24, 2014) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week released its long-awaited proposal to update Farm Worker Protection Standards (WPS), which are designed to provide protections from pesticide exposure for more than two million farmworkers and their families across the nation. Historically, farmworker advocates have criticized these protections as woefully inadequate in protecting the health of agricultural workers, but these new revisions attempt to strengthen the standards through increased training for workers handling pesticides, improved notification of pesticide applications, and a higher minimum age requirement for children to work around pesticides. Farmworkers face disproportionate risks to pesticide exposures, with EPA stating that pesticide exposure incidents are vastly under-reported —in some case by as much as 90 percent. Although these proposed changes are a step in the right direction, there are still ongoing concerns about whether the changes will be adequate to protect workers.
Revisions to the 20 year old standard have been under discussion for many years. In 2010, EPA released a document proposing WPS that would determine ways to increase training, improve safety requirements, provide clear emergency information, and create strong protection for applicators. However, EPA documents distributed during a November 2012 Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee (PPDC) meeting included few details within those goals, and brought into question the agency’s previous commitments.
However, EPA’s announcement of proposed revisions to WPS has been welcomed. The proposed changes are set to be printed in the Federal Register, http://www.regulations.gov, within ten days of the agency’s announcement and will be open to public comment. The proposed improvements to the Farm Worker Protection Standard include many recommendations from farmworker advocates:
- Raising the level of training for workers and handlers from every five years to once a year. The training will include information on farmworker protections required, restrictions on entering pesticide-treated fields, access to information and use of personal protective equipment. It will also provide instructions on reducing pesticide exposure in the home.
- Requiring mandatory posting of no entry signs in treated areas which have a re-entry time of more than 48 hours rather than either oral or posted notification.
- Setting the minimum age of pesticide applicators and early entry works to 16 years of age; previous rules had absolutely no minimum age requirements.
- Expanding no-entry buffer areas around pesticide-spray zones from nurseries and greenhouses to also include farms and forests to reduce exposure.
- Requiring personal protection equipment must be consistent with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration standards for ensuring respirators are providing protection.
- Requiring employers to communicate pesticide hazards to workers, handlers, or authorized representatives, which was not previously required, however removes requirement of displaying post-application specific information.
- Require employers to maintain pesticide application-specific information, labeling and safety data and make that information available to workers, handlers, or their authorized representatives;
Most importantly, workers and handlers will be made aware of their rights under the WPS and of the resources available to them in the event of a suspected act of retaliation or noncompliance with the WPS. Though these are significant and positive changes, there are still concerns over the time frame for implementing this proposal and that it does not go far enough to protect farmworkers.
“It took the EPA 20 years to make this announcement, how long will it take them to implement those standards? It won’t be until late 2016 until it’s implemented!” said Nelson Carrasquillo, executive director of El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores (CATA-The Farmworkers’ Support Committee) and Beyond Pesticides board member.
Enforcement of these new regulations remain a concern. Advocates say that EPA enforcement of worker protection standards has historically fallen short. In 2011, several farmwoker justice groups petitioned EPA to revise the WPS. This petition called for, among other protections the creation of a confidential system for reporting unsafe working conditions; and the creation of a national system to report incidents of pesticide-related illnesses and injuries, and an online database of reported illnesses. In 2013,these groups, joined by Beyond Pesticides, submitted a letter to then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to reinforce the concerns raised previously. Farmworker groups also took to Capitol Hill in the summer of 2013 to again call for an update to the WPS and to release Farworker Justice’s report Exposed and Ignored.
One omission in this new EPA proposal, which was requested in the 2011 petition, is medical monitoring of agricultural workers and handlers who regularly handle Toxicity Category I and II organophosphate and n-methyl carbamate pesticides. This was specifically highlighted in the 2011 petition because of its importance to worker safety. EPA however, does not believe that the anticipated benefits of a monitoring program would justify the costs to handlers and employers.According to the 2011 petition, medical monitoring would protect workers who handle organophosphate and n-methyl carbamate pesticides in multiple ways: it alerts employees to overexposure before overt symptoms are noticeable (and hopefully before permanent harm results); it alerts employers to unsafe working practices, conditions or equipment that could be affecting other employees as well; and in two states it has led to substantially fewer pesticide poisonings, and led to reduced use of these highly toxic pesticides.
Another request by farmworker advocates that is not included in these new revisions is the provision of contact information on legal representation as a part of worker and handler training, should the worker need legal redress. EPA, while insisting that agricultural employers are prohibited from retaliation against workers and handlers for attempting to comply with, or report suspected violation of the WPS, does not consider it appropriate to recommend particular attorneys or legal representatives.
The new WPS proposal also includes the recommendation to adopt California’s closed system standards -the strongest in the country, which protect handlers, bystanders, and the environment during mixing and loading of pesticides. A closed system is an apparatus designed for mixing and loading pesticides that enables the transfer of a a pesticide from its original container into a new container, mix tank, or application equipment, while limiting the handler’s exposure to the pesticide. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation requires applicators to use a closed system when handling products with a signal word of “Danger” or “Warning.”
Worker protection originally fell under standards created by EPA in 1974 under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The regulations only instructed growers to keep workers out of pesticide-treated fields until the dusts had settled or sprays had dried. That standard was developed after field hearings in which EPA heard from growers but not farmworkers. With the threat of litigation from the National Association of Farmworker Organizations and Migrant Legal Action Program in the late 1970s, the Carter Administration funded an effort, conducted by Beyond Pesticides’ executive director, to reach out to workers and collect data on their experiences with pesticide exposure and poisoning in the fields. EPA conducted an agency review of these standards in 1983 and concluded that the regulations were to protect agricultural workers. However, it took until 1992 to update the WPS.
The 1992 updates to the WPS were designed to eliminate or reduce exposure to pesticides, mitigate exposure that occur, and inform employees about the hazards of pesticides. Despite these intentions, the updated WPS still did not adequately protect farmworkers. These standards have been notoriously difficult to enforce, requires no record keeping to document whether the rules have been implement, and requires only minimal training that can threaten farmworkers and their families.
EPA has admitted that even with maximum feasible personal protective equipment and engineering controls, including all provisions required by the WPS, risks to workers still exceed EPA’s levels of concern. A 2008 study analyzing poisonings of pesticide workers between 1998 and 2005 concluded that in 30% of the cases of high levels of pesticide exposure, all labeling requirements, including those involving re-entry and PPE had been followed, clearly indicating that the WPS and/or labeling requirements are not adequate.
Our food choices have a direct effect on those who grow and harvest what we eat around the world. This is why food labeled organic is the right choice. In addition to serious health questions linked to actual residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, our food buying decisions support or reject hazardous agricultural practices, protection of farmworkers and farm families.
Continue the conversation about the WPS at Beyond Pesticides’ 32nd National Pesticide Forum, “Advancing Sustainable Communities: People, pollinators, and practices,” in Portland, OR April 11-12. The Forum will focus on improving farmworker protections along with solutions to the decline of pollinators and other beneficial organisms, strengthening organic agriculture, and creating healthy buildings, schools and homes. Space is limited so register now.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.