WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first revisions to its Agricultural Worker Protection Standard in more than 20 years, seeking to minimize chemical exposure among the nation’s 2 million farm laborers.
The changes, announced Feb. 20, would heighten record keeping requirements, mandate more frequent training in workers’ native tongues, impose new buffer zones for chemical applications and establish a minimum age for workers handling chemicals.
“We can’t turn our backs on the people who feed our nation,” said Jim Jones, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “They deserve to be protected.”
EPA will accept public comments for 90 days on the proposals, which have drawn criticism from the nation’s largest farm worker union for doing too little.
The rules would prohibit children under 16 from handling pesticides, with an exception for wholly owned farm family members.
Mandatory trainings to educate farm workers about their legal protections would be offered annually rather than on the current five-year interval. Training would emphasize protecting workers from exposing their homes to chemicals on work clothing, and decontamination supplies would be required in fields.
Employers would have to keep pesticide application records, as well as records on farm worker training, for two years. New rules would seek to ensure the effective use of protective equipment, such as respirators.
New 25- to 100-foot no-entry buffer zones surrounding treated fields would be implemented to protect workers from chemical drift and fumes. Now-voluntary signage warning when it’s unsafe to enter fields would be mandatory for the most toxic chemicals.
Each year, between 1,200 and 1,400 exposure-related incidents are reported to EPA, but Jones believes cases are dramatically underreported.
Jones said EPA hopes to have a final rule in effect within a year. He said EPA worked to make the proposed regulations manageable for farmers.
Erik Nicholson, vice president of United Farm Workers of America, believes the long-awaited proposals “fall short of providing farm workers with the protections they need to provide a safe workplace.”
Nicholson said the proposal waives required posting in a central location of chemicals used on individual farms. He also criticized the proposal’s lack of mandatory blood testing of chemical applicators, as is done in Washington and California, to alert employers when long-term exposure necessitates finding them new farm jobs.
He considers the expanded training sessions vague, as they fail to address specific chemicals used on farms.
Amy Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health with the Migrant Clinician’s Network, said her organization endorses the changes, believing they help a neglected population that hasn’t enjoyed the same protections afforded to other workers.
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Thompson said his national organization plans to consult with leaders from each state about the issue. Thompson said farmers care about the safety of their workers, but he sees “red flags” in new age limitations and buffer zones.
“We’ve got to look really carefully at the language in that and bounce it off farmers and see how it’s going to affect them,” Thompson said.
Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Administration, said his organization must become familiar with a new proposal as it’s still reviewing proposed drift reassessments of pesticides undergoing re-registration.
“It really is quite a reach into regulations where we feel we’ve already been smothered,” Moore said.