In a move called “a dream come true” by United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, revised farmworker safety provisions were recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a stated effort to protect the nation’s agricultural workers.
Changes in the agricultural worker protection standards were said to be a long-time coming, according to federal EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who briefed the press by conference call on the revisions to the 1992 Agricultural Worker Protection Standard.
Significant among those changes include annual mandatory training sessions to inform farmworkers on required protections. Current rules require this training once every five years.
There is also a minimum age requirement of 18 to handle pesticides. The previous rule did not have an age requirement.
The revisions continue the exemption for farm owners and their immediate families, with an expanded definition of “immediate family” to include in-laws, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and first cousins.
Other provisions of the rule, which takes effect 14 months after posting to the Federal Register, include, but are not limited to:
- Expanded training must 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,
- 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 – centrally-posted, or by requesting records,
- 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 provisions will now be comparable to Department of Labor (DOL) standards,
- Changes in personal protective equipment will be consistent with DOL’s standards for ensuring respirators are effective, including a fit test, medical evaluation and training,
- 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,
- No grace-period for training, worker must be trained before working in an area where pesticides had been used or a restricted-entry interval (REI) has been in effect in the past 30 days; and,
- Trainers of workers must be certified applicators, State/Tribal/Federal approved trainers and persons who have completed an EPA-approved train-the-trainer course.
McCarthy said the new rules were needed in part because each year upwards of 3,000 potentially preventable pesticide exposure incidents are reported to the EPA. The goal, she said, is to reduce this number.
McCarthy says the EPA believes there is “widespread underreporting” of these cases, which the EPA estimates costs as much as $15 million annually in lost wages and medical bills.
“These numbers tell us that the existing rule was not working the way that it should,” she said. Many of the most common types of incidents can be prevented if we adjust our standards to be more protective,” she said.
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said his agency will step up its enforcement efforts as it seeks also to share information on the revised EPA standards.
“Our wage and hour division will be on the ground and in the field conducting investigations, so we will use that access to spread the dangers of pesticides and distribute EPA information about the new protections,” Perez said.
Amy Wolfe, president and chief executive officer of AgSafe, an organization that helps educate agriculture employers, supervisors and farmworkers about worker safety, health and food safety issues that can affect the industry, says she hasn’t had the opportunity to read all 300-plus pages in the revisions just yet, but suspects parts of it will not impact California like it will other states.
In her statement, McCarthy said there are states already implementing their own standards, which are more stringent than the federal rules. California is typically one of those states with stricter regulations than the federal guidelines.
What will be watched as the ruling is implemented are provisions that increase the required training intervals for workers, Wolfe said.
The move to increase required training from every five years to once a year was supported by the California Department of Pesticide Regulations, which Wolfe says will open its own review of state standards sometime in 2016.
“This is one example of what the feds proposed that is already ahead of California,” Wolfe said of the new training requirements.
Folded into that provision is the requirement that trainers be certified, Wolfe says. This could likely mean a new series of classes and certifications in order to be approved as a trainer.
Current California law mandates that training classes be given by those with a qualified applicators certificate or qualified applicators license. The new provisions may not require that, she said, but will likely require another layer of coursework in order for people to be legally certified to train others in pesticide safety.
“This is a major change,” she said.
Other issues Wolfe says needs to be addressed include language in the law that stipulates “growers” as the ones responsible for ensuring farmworkers are trained.
In California, at least half of the state’s farmworkers are employed by farm labor contractors, and not directly by farmers themselves. This presents an entirely new facet to discussions as a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 in California created joint employer liability in cases where an employee of a labor contractor is injured on the job.
Now it is not merely the farm labor contractor liable for those injuries, but the farmer who hired the labor contractor.
Wolfe says at the end of the day farmers truly want the employees working on their farms, whether contracted or employed by them, to be safe and know how to properly handle chemicals and other dangerous substances.
Additional information on the revised worker protection standard can be found online.
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