A Step Forward: Protecting America’s Farmworkers

There are over 2 million farm workers in the United States today. Farm workers play an essential role in a strong American economy and in putting food on our tables. Each year, between 1,200 and 1,400 pesticide exposure incidents are reported on farms, fields, and forests subject to the Worker Protection Standard.

Workers exposed to these hazards on the job carry pesticides home on their clothing, exposing their families as well.  Sadly, the true number of incidents is actually much higher, as some studies estimate underreporting could range from 20 to 90 percent. These incidents lead to sick days, lost wages, medical bills, and absences from school.

Today, EPA is taking a step toward protecting farm workers and their families while supporting agricultural productivity by proposing commonsense revisions to the Worker Protection Standard.

EPA’s proposal aims to pull farm workers up toward the same level of protection from environmental and health hazards that other professions have had for decades. These updates would help protect millions of farm workers and their families from pesticide exposure through better training, increased access to information, improved safety precautions, and modernized compliance standards. The benefits reaped from preventing acute farm worker illnesses add up to $10-15 million a year.

Included in the proposal are revisions that would make worker trainings more frequent and higher quality, so workers fully understand the suite of protections afforded to them.

Additionally, basic farm worker protections that are out of date would be revised. For more hazardous pesticides, “no-entry” signage to denote pesticide-treated fields would be required. No person under the age of 16 would be able to apply pesticides, with an exemption for family farms. And a “no-entry buffer” area would be mandated around pesticide-treated fields to shield workers from overspray and fumes.

This draft proposal is the result of more than a decade of extensive input, taking everyone’s concerns into account. And since this is a draft, we invite everyone who has a stake in this to comment and continue to give us your advice. From state and local partners, to the farm worker community, to farmers, ranchers, and growers—we’ve brought everyone in on an open and transparent process.

That’s why we believe farms, too, will be pleased with these revisions, because they protect workers while also protecting agricultural productivity and family farming traditions. For example, more robust record keeping of application-specific pesticides and trainings can actually reduce administrative costs. And let’s not forget the costs associated with an ailing workforce; it’s in everyone’s interest for workers to maintain high quality health.  The proposed changes modernize the rule in a way that makes it more practical and easier for farmers and other employers to comply with.  And, importantly, family farms will continue to be exempted.

President Obama has called closing gaps of opportunity a defining challenge of our time. Meeting that challenge means ensuring clean air, clean water, and safe, healthy work environments.  That sense of environmental justice is at the heart of EPA’s mission to protect public health—especially for vulnerable communities dealing with risks associated with pesticide exposure.

These revisions to the Worker Protection Standard bring us closer to correcting that disparity and ensuring protections that are strong and sensible for farm workers, their families, and the agricultural community across America.