New federal pesticide regulations unveiled Sept. 28 will bar children under 18 from handling agricultural chemicals and increase farmworker training and reporting requirements.
Under revised rules announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Labor, children will be prohibited from handling pesticides or going into treated areas to perform “early-entry tasks,” although the children of farm owners will be exempt.
The new regulations also include mandatory annual training for farmworkers on precautions farms must take to prevent human exposure to pesticides, including instructions on how to reduce “take-home exposure” from pesticides on clothing. Currently training is required only once every five years.
The rules also increase requirements for no-entry signs for the most hazardous pesticides, sets up new no-entry zones of up to 100 feet around application equipment and requires record-keeping of applications and farmworker trainings for two years.
Farms must provide workers access to pesticide application information and safety data sheets, and the rules include anti-retaliation provisions, even for undocumented workers.
“This is a really big step forward to protect our nation’s 2 million farmworkers and their families from pesticide exposure,’ EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters in a conference call. “We will not turn our backs on the people that help feed this nation.”
The regulations, which will be published in the Federal Register, will mostly take effect in about 14 months so farmers and states can have time to adjust and develop updated training materials, according to the EPA.
The changes in the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard are the government’s first in about 20 years and come as thousands of potentially preventable pesticide exposure incidents are reported each year, leading to sick days, lost wages and medical bills, officials contend.
The final rules follow a public comment period and what the EPA calls “extensive” involvement from the agricultural community in crafting them. However, the rule changes are drawing criticism from the Agricultural Retailers Association, which charges the revisions were based on unfounded assumptions and deliberately misleading cost analyses.
“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,” ARA president and CEO Daren Coppock said in a statement. “It also discounts the significant efforts of state pesticide regulations.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation agrees that chemicals should be handled with care but is “concerned that the agency is piling regulatory costs on farmers and ranchers that bear little if any relation to actual safety issues,” environmental and energy policy director Paul Schlegel said in a news release.
The rule changes won praise from environmental and farmworker advocacy groups, including the Migrant Clinicians Network, Farmworker Justice, Pesticide Action Network and Earthjustice.
“While we celebrate these hard-won improvements … the real win will be getting the new rules implemented in the fields,” Pesticide Action Network senior scientist Margaret Reeves said in a statement. “We’ll now be turning our attention to both EPA enforcement and the state agencies to be sure these stronger rules really do protect farmworkers.”
On the EPA’s conference call, United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez said he’s seen “up close” the consequences of farmworkers not being given protections that laborers in other hazardous fields receive.
“Today’s announcement is a dream come true for all of those who fought so hard in the early days” of the UFW, Rodriguez said.
Among the new rules’ other provisions, new standards will be set for personal protective equipment, including making sure respirators are effective, and specific amounts of water will be set for routine washing, emergency eye flushing and other decontamination, according to the EPA.
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said teams that are already on the ground investigating wage and hour issues will be educating growers and farmworkers about the new pesticide safety regulations.
“Workers should never have to put their lives at risk for their livelihood,” Perez told reporters. “When they go to work in the morning, they should have a right to expect a healthy and safe environment.”