OLYMPIA — The Washington Department of Labor and Industries may reject a federal policy exempting extended family members from some workplace rules on handling pesticides.
The federal regulation, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, allows extended family members younger than 18 to handle pesticides. It also exempts relatives from rules intended to notify employees in their native language about recently sprayed fields and where safety equipment is stored.
L&I proposes to limit the exemption to a farmer's spouse, parents, children and siblings. The exemption would no longer apply to in-laws, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, first cousins, grandparents and grandchildren.
The department will hold public hearings on the proposal in August.
Farm groups are likely to push back, arguing L&I is interfering with family operations and a rule written by the Obama administration and embraced by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
"It's a little maddening," said Mike Gempler, Washington Growers League executive director. "I don't think they're doing anything for safety. They're just making it more difficult."
The pesticide-safety rules, known as Worker Protection Standards, catalog what farms and nurseries must do to warn, train and equip, and if necessary treat, employees. Everyone must wear protective clothing and spray pesticides safely, but a farmer's "immediate family" is exempt from most other requirements.
While toughening some standards, the Obama EPA heeded farm groups in 2015 and expanded the definition of "immediate family" to include relatives outside the nuclear family.
Some health agencies, including the Washington Department of Health, argued against the family exemption. The Obama EPA, however, concluded applying all the workplace rules to relatives would be "highly disruptive" and have a "high social cost."
"That definition of family recognized how complicated family structures are now," said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. "It seems like L&I has a very tight and restricted definition of family."
The state Department of Agriculture last year adopted the EPA rules, including the definition of immediate family. "To our stakeholders, it was a pretty reasonable change in definition and was aligned with some of the realities of being a small family farm," agriculture department spokesman Chris McGann said.
State law, however, gives L&I joint authority with the agriculture department to enforce the standards. L&I proposes to depart from the EPA standards in a handful of ways, including the definition of "immediate family."
"Every worker in Washington has a right to a safe and healthy workplace. Immediate family members are entitled to the same protection as other employees. L&I believes the current definition of immediate family is the most protective and should not be changed," according to email sent by an L&I spokesman.
In the end, L&I and the agriculture department will have to agree on one definition. McGann said the agriculture department is talking to farm groups about L&I's proposal.
If L&I's definition prevails, farmers will have a lot more paperwork to do to document that their relatives are trained and have been informed about pesticide applications, said Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests.
"So many people say they support family farms. Well, by definition, family farms will include family," she said.
L&I has scheduled four public hearings on the standards:
• 1 p.m. Aug. 20, Department of Labor and Industries, 7237 Linderson Way SW, Tumwater.
• 9 a.m. Aug. 21, Department of Labor and Industries, 525 E. College Way, suite H, Mount Vernon.
• 9 a.m. Aug. 22, Department of Labor and Industries, 3001 W. Broadway Ave., Moses Lake.
• 9 a.m. Aug. 23, 15 W. Yakima Ave., Suite 100, Yakima.
If L&I moves on schedule, its standards will go into effect in February.