February 20, 2014

EPA proposing new rules - the first in 20 years - to protect farm workers

For the first time in 20 years the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing new rules to protect farmworkers, including setting a minimum age on workers handling pesticides, new whistleblower rules and annual training for farmworkers.

New proposed rules meant to safeguard farmworkers from pesticide exposure were announced Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with the proposed national rules likely to affect the bulk of California’s 77,000 farm operators.

The EPA’s proposed regulations are the first updating of its Worker Protection Standard in 20 years, said Jim Jones, administrator of chemical safety and pollution protection at the EPA.

The rules would demand farmworker training, new signage, whistle-blower protections and a minimum age for handling pesticides on farms, among other changes.

The rules, which now enter a 90-day comment period, are likely to be finalized by next year, said Jones. “We cannot turn our back on the people that feed out nation – they have to be protected,” he said.

The new rules would protect the 2 million farmworkers nationwide exposed yearly to pesticides and would go a long way toward reducing the more than 12,000 workers each year who suffer acute pesticide poisoning in the U.S. In California – which already has stronger pesticide-exposure protections for farmworkers than other states – nearly 300 workers suffered acute pesticide poisoning, according to the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation.

But the EPA said the new rules are important because it believes acute pesticide exposure incidents are vastly under-reported – in some case by as much as 90 percent.

The rule will cover farms, forests, nurseries and greenhouses, said Jones. Livestock operations are exempted.

“What we’ve found is that the most common types of incidents can be prevented with changes to our current worker protection standard,” said Jones.

The proposed rules would set a minimum age of 16 for those working with or applying pesticides on farms. Family farms are exempt from the rule.

California already has an age limit on working with pesticides – but the state’s current regulation applies only to fumigants and high toxicity insecticides, said Jones.

He said the rule is considered significant for the state’s farmworkers because the bulk of the pesticides used in the state do not fall in the extremely hazardous category.

Other proposed rules include annual mandatory training on pesticide use and protection. That training would be offered in English only. Currently the EPA mandates that such training happen every five years.

Given that many farmworkers are not native English speakers, or do not speak the language at all, the new rules will require that training materials be made accessible to farmworkers’ representatives or advocates.

The rules would also call for a buffer area around fields where pesticides are being applied to protect farmworkers and others from pesticide overspray and drifting fumes. New “no entry” signs for areas where the most hazardous pesticides have been applied would also be required.

A representative for the California Farm Bureau Federation did not return a call seeking comment on the proposed rules.

For some, the proposed rules have been long in coming and do not go far enough in protecting farmworkers – especially young ones.

“I think this will be a big step in the right direction – to have an minimum age requirement for all pesticides,” said Anne Katten, pesticide and work safety specialist for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

“But I think the minimum age should be 18 years, because I don’t think 16-year-olds’ bodies are mature enough for them to be applying pesticides,” said Katten. “They also do not necessarily have the maturity to apply them in a responsible manner, so I think it would be a win-win for everyone if only older adults apply pesticides.”

Enforcement of the rules, once they have been set, will likely be murky, said Amy Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health for the Migrant Clinicians Network, an organization of doctors and other professionals committed to migrant worker health.

“Once rules get in place, advocates are going to have to work to make sure these rules are enforced and that there are teeth to these regulations,” said Liebman.

Key to enforcement, she said, are the newly proposed record-keeping requirements.

Under the proposals, farm operators would be required to keep records of the pesticides they apply and when they were applied, as well as worker pesticide safety-training activity. The EPA said it wants farm operators to keep those records for a minimum of two years.

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