EPA seeks tougher safety standards for farm workers
By Larry Dreiling
The Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 20 proposed strengthening the 20-year-old Worker Protection Standard, aimed at protecting farm workers from toxic pesticides.
“I know the current rule is not working the way it should,” said Jim Jones, head of the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a conference call with reporters.
In visiting farms to examine how and if the WPS should be changed, Jones said there is widespread under-reporting of pesticide exposures by anywhere from 20 percent to 90 percent, leading to sick days, higher medical bills and absences from work.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the announcement “marks an important milestone for the farm workers who plant, tend, and harvest the food that we put on our tables each day.
“EPA’s revised Worker Protection Standard will afford farm workers similar health protections to those already enjoyed by workers in other jobs. Protecting our nation’s farm workers from pesticide exposure is at the core of EPA’s work to ensure environmental justice.”
Farms staffed with family members would continue to be exempt from the new rules.
The proposed rule comes on the heels of a Feb. 6 letter from 52 members of Congress sent to McCarthy urging EPA to get moving on setting the new rules. That letter was developed from the intent of farm worker advocacy groups to set the stricter standards.
“Although EPA has not made meaningful updates to the WPS in over 20 years, now that the agency has finally taken steps to improve protections for farm workers, we urge you to expeditiously finalize these long-overdue changes to the WPS and to reject any efforts to undermine or further delay the process,” the letter said. “This failure to provide workers adequate protection is wholly inconsistent with Congress’ intent.
“To promote the health of rural communities and those who harvest the food for our constituents’ tables, strong protections from pesticide exposure are urgently needed.”
In a release, EPA said its proposal “represents more than a decade of extensive stakeholder input by federal and state partners and from across the agricultural community including farm workers, farmers, and industry on the current…WPS for agricultural pesticides first established in 1992.”
Proposed WPS changes include:
Annual mandatory trainings (rather than once every five years) to inform farm workers about the protections they are afforded under the law, including restrictions on entering pesticide-treated fields and surrounding areas, decontamination supplies, access to information and use of personal protective equipment.
Expanded trainings will include instructions to reduce take-home exposure from pesticides on work clothing and other safety topics.
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.
First-time minimum age requirement: Children under 16 will be prohibited from handling pesticides, with an exemption for family farms.
New no-entry 25- to 100-foot buffer areas surrounding pesticide-treated fields will protect workers and others from exposure from pesticide overspray and fumes.
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 farm worker training and early entry notification must be kept for two years.
Additional proposed changes include:
Personal Protection Equipment (respirator use) must be consistent with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration standards for ensuring respirators are effective, including fit test, medical evaluation and training.
Requirement to make available to farm workers or their advocates (including medical personnel) information specific to the pesticide application, including the pesticide label and Safety Data Sheets.
Additional changes make the rule more practical and easier to comply with for farmers.
The EPA says that between 1,200 and 1,400 cases of pesticide exposure are reported each year at farms, nurseries and other agricultural operations covered by the current standards. But the EPA says that 20 percent to 90 percent more cases are not being reported.
Farm workers are unique in that many of the workplace protection standards issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for other industries do not apply to them. Many farm workers are migrants who move from farm to farm, making it difficult to track health problems from pesticide exposure that can develop overtime.
“For far too long, this essential labor force has been treated as second class,” said Amy Liebman, the director of environmental and occupational health for the Migrant Clinicians Network, an organization that focuses on migrant health care.
Liebman said the group was pleased with EPA’s proposal but would like to have seen it include more frequent training, additional protections for workers applying the pesticides, such as medical monitoring, and protections for whistleblowers who file complaints.
The American Farm Bureau said Feb. 20 it has not had time to review the proposal.
For more information on the EPA’s Proposed Worker Protection Standard, visit http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/safety/workers/proposed/index.html.
Once the proposed rule is posted, it will trigger a 90-day comment period. Jones said he hopes the rule will be finalized by early in 2015.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.