New EPA Rules to Protect Farmworkers Hang In the Balance

Prompted by a 2011 petition filed by a coalition of farmworker advocates, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) is considering improvements to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard, which hasn’t been meaningfully upgraded since it was published in 1992. The EPA’s proposed rule would improve existing standards, but, according to supporters, the changes don’t go far enough and still leave the two million men, women, and children who work in the fields vulnerable to excessive exposure to toxic pesticides.

Farmworkers enjoy fewer protections than other workers. The National Labor Relations Act excluded farmworkers at the behest of Southern Dixiecrats who were part of FDR’s New Deal Coalition. This double standard appeared again as the country embraced nationwide occupational health and safety standards for the use of hazardous chemicals in non-agricultural settings and left farmworkers exposed to pesticides with lesser protections.

“Most American workers enjoy workplace protections created by the federal Office of Safety and Health Administration, but not farmworkers,” said Eva Gartner, an attorney for Earthjustice, one of the public interest law firms representing the petitioners. Farmworkers must rely on the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”) which is far more lenient than the OSHA rules that protect industrial workers.

Many farmworkers are sickened from pesticides each year. An average of 57.6 out of every 100,000 agricultural workers experience acute pesticide poisoning each year, a figure comparable to the incidence of breast cancer in the United States.

Some, but not all, of the proposed protections have been implemented in California, but the aim is to secure protection on a national basis so that the migratory workforce that puts food on our tables is protected wherever they work. “The fact that these protections are already in place in some states or for some chemicals proves that there is no significant obstacle to mandating them on the national basis,” said Anne Katten, project director for pesticide and work safety at California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

Comments supporting the EPA’s proposed rule and urging its improvement must be received by June 17, 2014.

If you are interested in commenting to the EPA on its proposed rule, a suggested comment and more information is available at Earthjustice’s website here. The EPA’s site is located here.

EPA’s proposed rule adopts some of the key provisions sought by the petitioners:

  • Annual safety training for farmworkers and pesticide handlers.
  • Emergency assistance provisions requiring employers to make transportation to a medical facility available to workers and handlers within 30 minutes of learning of an exposure and to require the employer to provide to the worker, handler, or treating medical personnel the Safety Data Sheet and pesticide label (as opposed to providing it only upon request).
  • Respirator training and fitting. The EPA proposal would require employers of pesticide handlers to comply with existing OSHA standards on respirator use, fit-testing of respirators, and medical evaluation requirements whenever a respirator is required by the labeling on a chemical product.
  • Drift protection requiring businesses to establish buffer zones around sprayed fields. Pesticide applicators would be required to stop spraying if anyone entered the buffer zone or the treated area.
  • Farmworker advocates say the proposed rule needs to be improved in the following areas:
  • Medical monitoring for farmworkers who handle two particularly dangerous classes of neurotoxic pesiticides—organophosphate and N-methyl carbamate pesticides—before symptoms or illness occurs. Since California implemented a system to monitor workers who handle these types of pesticides, the number of poisonings involving these pesticides has gone down considerably. But workers in other states lack protection.
  • Hazard communication that puts the burden on employers to post information about chemical hazards at a central location where farmworkers can find it, rather than putting the burden on the farmworker to ask the employer for the information. Fear of retaliation, immigration status, and language barriers can make employees reluctant to ask for information.
  • Mandatory posting of fields notifying workers by signs (rather than verbal notice) not to reenter fields that require a 24-hour period after pesticides have been applied.
  • Minimum age for farmworkers handling pesticides should be 18 rather than the proposed minimum age of 16.

The 2011 petition was prepared by Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice, another public interest law firm, on behalf of the United Farm Workers, Pesticide Action Network North America, Farm Workers Pesticide Project, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos deo Noroeste, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc.

By Ted Franklin | May 28, 2014

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