The Environmental Protection Agency has released a final version of updated rules intended to keep farmworkers from being poisoned by pesticides. The previous "worker protection standard" for farms has been in effect since 1992.
The new rules require farms to make a host of changes. Employers will have to train workers on the risks of pesticides every year, rather than every five years. Workers will have to stay farther away from contaminated fields. Farmers will have to keep more records on exactly when and where they used specific pesticides. And no children under the age of 18 will be allowed to handle the chemicals.
There's very little solid data on exactly how many workers are exposed to hazardous levels of pesticides, though the EPA estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 workers may be poisoned by pesticides each year. Many others are exposed to hazardous chemicals but experience less severe symptoms.
Farmworker advocates praised the new rules. "We've been fighting for more than 20 years from some of these improvements," says Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice.
But the new rules do not go as far as some had hoped. They do not, for instance, require routine medical monitoring of workers who specialize in applying the most dangerous pesticides. Both California and Washington require such monitoring, and these programs have identified workers who had been been exposed to pesticides and were at risk for developing more serious health problems. The EPA, however, decided that requiring such monitoring across the nation would cost too much.
The agency also decided not to demand that employers and pesticide manufacturers translate their safety documents into Spanish or other languages that workers may understand better than English. According to the EPA, there's little convincing evidence that such a requirement would improve safety, although the agency still "encourages ... employers to display this information in such a way that workers and handlers can understand, including translation."
California and Washington already have adopted, through state regulation, many of the rules that the EPA now wants to put in place nationwide. The EPA rules will take effect about 14 months from now.
The rules will not apply, however, to farm owners and their immediate families. This was intended to reduce the regulatory burden on small, family-operated farms.