OLYMPIA — Overexposure to pesticides caused eight orders for temporary work removal of pesticide handlers in Washington tree fruit orchards in 2014, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries.
That was one less than the year before and within ranges since a monitoring program began in 2004.
There were nine in 2013, five in 2012, none in 2011 and 2010, 10 in 2005 and a record 22 in 2004. However, the 2004 number was contested by the industry due to procedural problems.
The department’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health began a program of testing pesticide handlers for depression of cholinesterase, a blood enzyme needed for healthy nervous systems, in 2004 after the state Supreme Court ruled the agency had to consider testing.
“It’s a good program. It’s been very successful,” said Richard Fenske, director of the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The percentage of handlers tested who had depressed cholinesterase dropped from 20 percent in 2004 to 7 to 8 percent in 2014, he said. Greater awareness and training because of the program helped the decline, he said.
He agreed with the report that 15 action level cases in 2014 were due to problems handlers have with or using protective gear.
“Wearing rain gear and respirators is not perfect,” he said. “In other industries, we can use ventilation systems or restrict access to certain areas, but we don’t have those options in outside work.”
The program requires agricultural employers to record hours employees handle cholinesterase-inhibiting, toxicity class I and II organophosphate and n-methyl-carbamate pesticides. Employers must provide cholinesterase blood testing to employees who handle such pesticides for 30 or more hours in any consecutive 30-day period and follow health care provider recommendations regarding pesticide handling practices and medical evaluation.
Employers have to offer the blood testing, but employees are free to decline it, said Pamela Cant, a department industrial hygienist.
All eight temporary removals in 2014 were of handlers employed by five separate tree fruit growers in Central Washington, a department report says.
The report says toxic organophosphates and n-methyl-carbamate pesticides were handled. Those included Lorsban, Sevin and Imidan, Fenske said. Imidan, with its active ingredient phosmet, has replaced Guthion to combat codling moth on apples and pears in May and June, Fenske said.
The EPA banned Guthion in 2012 but allowed growers to use existing supplies through September 2013.
Beside eight workers temporarily removed from pesticide applications for depressed cholinesterase, seven others had depressions requiring workplace evaluations.
Temporary worker removal is triggered by a 30-percent depression in red blood cell cholinesterase or a 40-percent decline in serum cholinesterase while a 20-percent depression requires employer review of pesticide handling practices.
In 2014, 364 growing operations and 2,232 pesticide handlers participated in baseline cholinesterase testing. Of the 2,232, 224 were tested at least once more during the application season.
Use of certain products triggers voluntary baseline testing and the amount of usage triggers second and third testing, Fenske said.
The department reimbursed 40 to 45 employers $115,000 for blood tests in 2014, the report says.
Depression of cholinesterase in the blood and can lead to nerves being over stimulated to the point of exhaustion, blurred vision, diarrhea, tremors, seizures, loss of consciousness and death, the department said. Farm organizations say pesticides are safe if administered properly.