California Farmers Brace for New EPA Pesticide Rules

Strawberry fields
Strawberry fields in Salinas.

For the first time since 1992, United States officials are strengthening rules to protect farmworkers across the nation from pesticide poisoning.

The decision was announced last month, and draft rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could help workers and their families on California’s 80,500 farms and ranches. California growers raise more than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts harvested in the U.S., according to the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

The EPA should begin taking public comment on the proposed rules this spring. The final version could be announced this year.

“Workers and (pesticide) handlers face high risk of exposure to pesticides,” said Kevin Keaney, chief of the certification and worker protection branch with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a webinar hosted March 5 by the Migrant Clinicians Network. MCN advocates for the health and safety of migrant workers, who make up a large chunk of America’s farming work force.

“This is fraught with environmental justice issues,” Keaney said, noting that past pesticide poisonings might have been prevented with tougher EPA standards.

The proposed rules include:

  • Workers must be trained each year in the dangers of pesticides, necessary safety precautions and workers’ rights under law. Current rules require training every five years.
  • Expand worker training to include ways to stop workers from bringing pesticides home and exposing their families.
  • Growers must keep records for two years showing which fieldworkers were trained and which pesticides were sprayed on fields.
  • Growers must give pesticide training to new employees within two days of starting work, instead of within five days as now required.
  • Growers must keep running water on hand for eye flushing at pesticide mixing and loading sites. Current rules require a pint of water.
  • Kids younger than 16 will not be allowed to handle pesticides (those working on family farms are exempted).
  • Farmworkers potentially suffering from pesticide exposure must be taken to a medical facility within 30 minutes. The labels of the pesticides at issue must be given to doctors.
  • Growers must keep a buffer of 25 to 100 feet around fields sprayed with pesticide.
  • Fieldworker respirators must meet guidelines set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • Expand the posting of no-entry signs around fields sprayed with pesticides until chemical levels are safe for humans to enter again.*

For California farmers, adopting the new rules might not be as dramatic as it could be in other states. That’s because a few of the national proposals are based on California state laws already on the books, EPA officials said. Other existing California rules are similar to or even stricter than those being proposed.

For example, proposed rules governing closed systems — machines that take pesticides out of their container, move it into hoses and rinse the container, ideally preventing any exposure to people — are almost exactly like what already is in effect here, according to EPA officials.

In addition, California already requires those handling pesticides to be at least 18 years old, as opposed to the 16-year-old age limit proposed nationally, said Charlotte Fadipe, spokeswoman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. California also requires buffer areas for some pesticides; respirators to meet OSHA standards; and pesticide information to be readily available to medical providers, she said.

The state still is evaluating the national EPA proposed rules, Fadipe said, but sees many similarities to those already in place.

But some proposed rules would be an adjustment.

Guadalupe Sandoval, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, said the first change he noticed is a requirement that growers train farmworkers every year in pesticide safety, and document the trainings and the pesticides sprayed on the fields. Currently, workers now must be trained every five years.

Sandoval predicted the training requirement would be relatively easy to meet. “A percentage of your workforce is going to turn over, and so you’re going to have to train. And while you train, you might as well train everybody,” Sandoval said.

Documenting the trainings shouldn’t be tough, either, Sandoval said, as state laws already require more documentation than federal rules.

“It doesn’t take that long to get done,” Sandoval said.

Proposed requirements also are stricter for warning signs on pesticide-sprayed fields, said Michael Meuter, attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance in Salinas. The new rules could have signs warning farmworkers and anyone else when a field is not safe to enter for a period longer than 48 hours. Currently, fields must be signed if they are unsafe to enter for seven or more days, or meet other hazardous criteria.

“That would increase the number of fields in California that have to be publically posted, to advise workers and others about dangerous pesticide use in the fields,” Meuter said.

Jess Brown, president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, said he has not yet reviewed the proposed rules in detail. But on first read, many of them look familiar to things his members are already doing.

“The safety of employees is a priority of growers. These new rules appear to have many similarities to what we have in California,” Brown said.

The national new rules are important, Keaney said, both to protect farmworkers and their families from pesticide poisoning and to help with enforcement. Some of the proposals stem from a case against Ag-Mart Produce in Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey, where a number of women gave birth to babies with severe birth defects, Keaney said.

The case against Ag-Mart Produce “failed because there were no records of, ‘these people were trained here and were in these fields,’” Keaney said, in the webinar.

The proposed rules would require growers to record what pesticides were being sprayed where and what safety training each employee has taken. The trainings also would teach workers how to avoid taking the pesticides home and exposing their families.

Farmworker advocates say the proposed rules are long overdue.

“Farmworkers are currently not afforded the same protections as workers in other industries. It was really important for the EPA to look at this,” said Amy Liebman, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for Migrant Clinicians Network.

*Source: U.S. EPA

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