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A Step Forward: Protecting America’s Farmworkers

2014 February 20
Gina McCarthy


February 20, 2014
2:29 pm EDT

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Additionally, basic farm worker protections that are out of date would be revised.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.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Ernest Martinson permalink
    February 20, 2014

    Training, proper procedures, an awareness of worker protections, and a general education as to the insidious effects of pesticides on life as well as the potential of working with nature rather than killing her are all needed. Needed also is the application of the principle of polluter pays in the form of a tax on pesticides.

  2. Jason McAlister permalink
    February 24, 2014

    The EPA has completely failed at it’s task of protecting American’s. By allowing self regulation, no training, and not requiring even a driver’s licence to purchase or apply the unbelievable amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides is criminal. To me, EPA lost all credibility after fast tracking the increase of RoundUp by 10X’s in our food supply. I understand that you had to because it was already in our food and you could hide the truth any longer so you just changed the rules. My cancer was a direct response to exposure that you should have studied long before rubber stamping everything that touches your desk. I challenge you to find any lake or river that does not contain these chemicals.

  3. Adele M. Pleatman, MPH permalink
    February 24, 2014

    My daughter’s friend who is specializing in Nephrology in Boston, MA has just returned from Nicaragua where the farmworkers are dying from kidney failure due to exposure to pesticide applied to crops. He is investigating more intensively the sudden illness in young men and their early mortality. It seems like the big agri-chemical have farmers believing they can not farm without, as it will decrease crop yields. Yes, I am happy to hear that you are revising Worker Protection Standard, please consider 0 exposures for these workers. They are putting their lives at risk and the public would prefer more organic food to be consumed. I will send you this link if you e mail me about this health concern in Nicaragua.

  4. Adele M. Pleatman, MPH permalink
    February 24, 2014

    Here is the link:

    http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/making-pictures-finding-solutions-in-nicaragua/?comments#/1/

    Thanks,

    Adele M. Pleatman

  5. Barbara Ray permalink
    February 25, 2014

    When these regulations are good enough that you would get your grandchildren jobs working in the fields on their summer vacation, then they will be good enough and not before. Make sure the training and signs are in the language best understood by the workers.

  6. jeniton permalink
    June 23, 2014

    Its really great blog.

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