EPA, Labor Broaden Pesticide Protections for Farm Workers

September 28, 2015 03:20 PM
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New rules raise minimum age to 18 for handling pesticides, but exempt family farms.

The country’s 2 million farm workers could soon have less chance of harmful pesticide exposures, according to updated "worker protection standards" proposed today by EPA and the U.S. Department of Labor. The significant changes include:

  • New minimum age of 18 for handling pesticides.
  • More education for workers on handling pesticides and how they can minimize the exposure risk for themselves and their families.
  • More frequent training (annually vs. every five years), and
  • Bigger “exclusion zones” for all outdoor areas treated with pesticides.

“Farm workers deserve to be healthy and safe while they earn a living,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

According to her remarks, there are an estimated 1,800 and 3,000 “potentially preventable pesticide exposure incidents” reported annually, leading to farm worker illnesses that cost an estimated $10 million to $15 million each year. “These numbers tell us that the existing rule was just not working the way it should, but many of the most common types of incidents can be prevented if we adjust our standards to be more protective, so that’s exactly what we’ve sought to do,” McCarthy said.

The agriculture industry will have some time to prepare for the shift. The proposed regulation will not go into effect until perhaps a year and a half from now, according to the EPA, which must first publish the new rules in the Federal Register. 

Based on the information released by EPA and Labor on Monday, the rules appear likely to have the largest impact on fruit and vegetable farms that rely on migrant labor.

"The regulation seeks to protect and reduce the risks of injury or illness resulting from agricultural workers’ (those who perform hand-labor tasks in pesticide-treated crops, such as harvesting, thinning, pruning) and pesticide handlers’ (those who mix, load and apply pesticides) use and contact with pesticides on farms, forests, nurseries and greenhouses. The regulation does not cover persons working with livestock,” according to EPA documents.

(Click here for a side-by-side comparison of the proposed and existing rules.)

As such, the new regulation may have a relatively muted effect on commodity growers in the Corn Belt. Family farms continue to be exempt from the proposed rules, which actually broaden the definition of “immediate family” to include grandparents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and first cousins.

However, agricultural retailers are already expressing their displeasure with the proposed rule and the process of developing it.

"Agricultural retailers pay a lot of attention to worker safety because they care about their employees, and accidents are costly for both employees and employers," said Agricultural Retailers Association President and CEO Daren Coppock in a statement. "The final rule overlooks improvements made in worker safety by the industry over the preceding 22 years, most significantly through development and adoption of precision agriculture and drift reduction technologies. It also discounts the significant efforts of state pesticide regulators."

What do you think of these proposed rules for handling pesticides? Let us know in the comments. 

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