Farmworkers Finally Get Safety Regs Every Other Industry Has Had for Decades
Pay isn’t the only realm in which farm labor lags behind. Just as farmworkers are excluded from minimum wage requirements, so too has the workforce lacked safety protections the federal government has for decades guaranteed workers in all other industries.
On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department, and the United Farm Workers announced an update to what’s known as the Worker Protection Standards that is designed to bring an end to that inequity by placing limits on legal pesticide exposure and improving whistle-blower protections, among other changes. With the new rules, the 2 million ag workers in the United States could finally be afforded the workplace-safety status quo.
“We depend on farmworkers every day to help put the food we eat on America’s dinner tables—and they deserve fair, equitable working standards with strong health and safety protections,” Gina McCarthy, the head of the EPA, said in a press release. “With these updates we can protect workers while at the same time preserve the strong traditions of our family farms and ensure the continued growth of our agricultural economy.”
The new regulations, which will be put into practice over the coming year or so, require that workers applying pesticides be 18 years old; expand documentation and record-keeping requirements for employers; increase the frequency of mandatory safety training from once every five years to annually; and make fit-testing for respirators mandatory. Family farms, including underage children, are exempt from the regulations.
“These are good improvements—we’re excited for it,” said Margaret Reeves, senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network, an international group that advocates for safe and limited pesticide use. While the rules don’t expand on protections that have long been offered to workers in other industries, she still sees the changes as a big improvement—especially with regard to setting an age requirement, improving both the standards and frequency of training, and updating safety requirements.
“Now we’re going to have to be vigilant to make sure that they’re adequately implemented and enforced,” she said. “Historically, it has not been.”
Enforcement will be handled by individual states. While California has its Pesticide Regulations Department (part of the state EPA), which is dedicated to the regulation and management of ag chemicals in the state, the new rules will be enforced by the state agriculture department in a state like Florida, which has a different mandate and stakeholders.
While the updated rules include new training that focuses on how to not bring your work home with you in the form of pesticide residue on clothing, and sets 100-foot exclusion zones around equipment used to apply pesticides, the changes do not address issues of pesticide drift, which can affect children and non-farmworkers in nearby communities.
According to the EPA, between 10,000 and 20,000 cases of pesticide poisoning are documented every year among the 2 million farmworkers in the United States. While the detrimental health effects caused by exposure can be minor in some cases, there is both anecdotal and research-based evidence that working with pesticides can lead to chronic health problems, especially for women and children.
“Many times, I saw [my parents] come home lightheaded or with blisters on their hands from the exposure to pesticides, and it was frustrating not being able to do anything,” said Selena Zelaya, the 19-year-old daughter of two farmworkers in Central Florida, in a joint press release from a coalition of farmworker rights and pesticide-reform groups, including PAN. “Farmworkers bring food to our table. I am grateful that EPA has finally taken steps to protect them. We owe it to them to protect them and have strong laws to ensure their well-being.”