By Ashley Nelsen
Have you seen Edward R. Murrow’s documentary Harvest of Shame? It’s a Peabody-award winning film about the agricultural conditions of migrants in the 1960s. The opening scene is in Florida. It shows African Americans in a parking lot where labor contractors are repeatedly shouting, “Over here! Seventy cents!” while urging migrant workers to get on a bus to go work in the fields harvesting produce for 70 cents a day, often working in fields while they are being sprayed with harmful pesticides.
The Harvest of Shame vividly showed the American public the deplorable cycle of human poverty and labor abuse used to ensure the variety of produce at affordable prices we’ve come to expect. Fast forward to 2014, the demographic of migrant farm workers has changed to predominately Latino, but the challenges remain the same: poor and unsafe labor conditions and low wages.
My office at EPA, the Certification and Worker Protection Branch, realized that to reach this environmental justice population and educate them about pesticide safety would require more than the typical “top-down” government approach. To find such an invisible population we decided on a “bottom-up” approach involving partnerships with stakeholders who interact with farm workers on a regular basis.
We partnered with the Association of Farm Worker Opportunity Programs, a national network of trainers who deliver pesticide safety training. Their newest training module, co-developed with EPA, is Project LEAF, which educates farm workers and their families on the hazards of take-home pesticide exposure. Another wonderful partner we have is the Migrant Clinicians Network, an association of clinicians in rural areas that educates healthcare providers on how to recognize, treat, and report pesticide poisoning. We also recently collaborated with physicians and subject matter experts to update our “Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings.” This manual is used nationally and internationally by healthcare professionals in treating patients with pesticide-related illnesses. Pesticides are often colorless and odorless, and symptoms of exposure mimic the cold and flu, making this manual instrumental for those providing healthcare for farm workers.
We also recently proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). The WPS, originally enacted in 1992, was developed to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning and injury among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. The proposed changes would require annual mandatory pesticide safety training, expanded posting of no-entry signs for some of the most hazardous pesticides, and, for the first-time ever, children under the age 16 would not be allowed to handle pesticides (unless on a family farm).
Language barriers, cultural differences, documentation status and physical migration continue to make the farm worker population virtually invisible in this country. However, by working with stakeholders who have the common interest of improving the well-being of the American farm worker, we at EPA are working to help end the harvest of shame.
NOTE: If you would like to support the proposed changes to the agricultural Worker Protection Standard by leaving a comment please visit: EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0184. Comments must be received on or before August 18, 2014. Additionally, you can click here for tips on how to effectively comment on EPA proposed rules and changes.
About the author: Ashley Nelsen began working at the EPA’s HQ Office in Washington, DC, September 2009. She became passionate about farm worker issues after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer and Kiva Fellow in Latin America.