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EPA Adopts New Farmworker Protection Standard

Brian Evans via Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an update to its Agricultural Worker Protection Standard in late September.  The updates are intended to better protect against harmful pesticide exposure.  Farmworker advocates are celebrating the victory and what it will mean form the nation’s 2 million farmworkers, including nearly 300,000 in Florida.

Pesticides have been used in the country’s agricultural fields dating back to the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 1992 that the EPA first adopted significant regulations to educate workers and protect them against harmful chemical exposures.  “The standard that was adopted in 1992 and implemented in 1995 was just very basic,” said Jeannie Economos, Pesticide-Safety and Environmental Health project coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka.  “Things like farmworkers need to have a training about pesticide health and safety.  They need to have decontamination supplies; basically handwashing water and soap; very very basic and inadequate regulations.”

Now after more than 20 years of lobbying on the part of farmworker advocates, the EPA is preparing to implement an updated standard.

The new regulations set a minimum age of 18 for workers handling or spraying pesticides.  The new rules include updated training requirements including information about take home exposures.

“Farmworkers that are working in the fields can get pesticides on their skin, on their clothes and then they go home and pick up their children or come into the home with their clothes and wash their work clothes with their regular laundry,” said Economos.  “All of those things are dangerous and could expose the families to pesticides.”

The new rules apply stricter requirements on when pesticides can be sprayed.  Under the updated standard, applicators must stop spraying if anyone comes within 100 feet of their equipment.  The rules also require employers to adopt better record-keeping practices on worker pesticide training and more adequate training overall.

“What happens now is so often farmworkers will say they go to work on their first day.  It’s five o’clock in the morning. They’re half asleep.  The employer puts a video or DVD in for them to watch.  It’s a 15 minute EPA video and they sleep through it and at the end they’re told to sign a piece of paper that they saw the video and they were trained,” said Economos.  “And then they go out in the fields without any real understanding of what they’re up against with pesticides. With these new regulations hopefully that will change.”

Another change requires training to occur before employees begin working in the fields.  Currently, employers have a five day grace period to complete training for new employees.

Now advocates say their next step will be making sure that there’s adequate enforcement of the new standards.  Karla Martinez, senior attorney with Florida Legal Services’ Migrant Farmworker Justice Project said in Florida, that responsibility will fall on the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  Many of the complaints that come to her are from workers being told to go into fields that have recently been sprayed with chemicals. 

“The response can be quick at times from the department, but the issue that we have seen is that the fines are often minimal when it comes to violations of the protection standard,” said Martinez.  “So there seems not to be an incentive for the employers to stop breaking the law.”

Furthermore, Economos says workers are often reluctant to report pesticide safety violations for fear of losing their jobs.

Economos said that while she’s celebrating the new rules, she wishes they’d have gone further by requiring regular blood testing and monitoring of pesticide handlers.

The EPA’s updated Agricultural Worker Protection Standard are slated to take effect in the fall of 2016.