Advocates say a draft of the updated Worker Protection Standard is imperfect, but still offers greater protections to laborers in one of the country’s most hazardous industries.
WASHINGTON — U.S. regulators are moving into the final stages of a major update to guidelines on the use of pesticides by agricultural workers, changes that labor advocates have been urging for more than a decade.
Indeed, it’s been almost a quarter-century since the Environmental Protection Agency updated the guidelines, known as the Worker Protection Standard. These rules not only have a direct impact on the health and well-being of the country’s estimated two million farmworkers but also on their families and communities. Pesticides and related residues, which can easily be brought home on clothing, are a key example of the broader impact of agricultural regulations and guidelines.
When the EPA released a draft of its update to the Worker Protection Standard in February, the agency’s administrator Gina McCarthy lauded it as a “milestone” for farmworkers. She also noted that protecting agricultural laborers from pesticide exposure “is at the core of EPA’s work to ensure environmental justice.”
The proposals were opened to public comment over the summer, and the agency is currently analyzing nearly 200,000 of these responses. A final rule could come out by this spring, though EPA officials couldn’t confirm any public timeframe for this process.
Advocacy groups are now mounting a campaign to keep the pressure on the EPA, seeking to remind regulators that farmworkers throughout the country are laboring under outdated pesticides regulation that the government has admitted is unacceptably weak. One nationwide advocacy group, Pesticide Action Network North America, is currently gathering signatures on the issue, which it plans to hand over to the EPA during the last week of this month — International Food Workers Week.
The EPA itself acknowledges that the process toward updating the Worker Protection Standard, which was originally created in 1992, has taken more than a decade.
“We have been pushing for stronger standards for 10 or more years, as there are a lot of areas in which this is a particularly weak standard,” Virginia Ruiz, the director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice, a legal advocacy group, told MintPress News.
“In general, we feel that the revisions are a small step in the right direction. But they could go a lot further in safeguarding farmworkers’ health and safety from pesticides.”
The proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standard will, for instance, require annual mandatory trainings for farmworkers. These will offer updates on available equipment, restrictions around the use of pesticides, and their own protections under law. Previously, such trainings only had to be offered every five years.
In addition, requirements will be strengthened around posting notifications after a field has been sprayed, aiming to ensure that all workers know where the dangerous areas are and how long they will be considered toxic. Further, these posted areas will be expanded to up to 100 feet around each sprayed field, creating a wider buffer zone.
For the first time, the new standards will also include a minimum age requirement. Except on family farms, no child under 16 years old will be allowed to handle pesticides or to enter areas recently treated with these substances.
For a variety of reasons, agricultural work is generally considered among the most hazardous of industries. Yet for years, the people doing this work have received uniquely weak levels of protection from the federal government.
In her announcement of the Worker Protection Standard update in February, EPA Administrator McCarthy referred to this discrepancy. In revisiting the rules, McCarthy said, her agency hoped to ensure that farmworkers received “similar health protections to those already enjoyed by workers in other jobs.”
However, rights advocates say that, even if the proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standard are finalized, the disconnect between agriculture and other dangerous sectors will remain.
“A lot of the safeguards that exist for other hazardous industries just aren’t there for farmworkers and pesticide use, and there’s no reason for that,” Farmworker Justice’s Ruiz said.
“For instance, look at the new protections being extended to children 16 and under. While this is very important, in most other industries with hazardous conditions the minimum age is 18. So we’d prefer that these requirements be aligned.”
The new Worker Protection Standard would also tighten certain reporting requirements to better enable state regulators to ensure compliance with the guidelines. Yet reporting standards will still be weak, some warn, undermining the ability of public health workers and others to track the impacts of pesticide use.
“Very few states have any kind of reporting on either pesticide-related illness or even, more broadly, pesticide use,” Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network North America, told MintPress.
“California has two key systems in this regard that are precedent-setting, and it would be my dream to have a national regulatory system that could replicate those. Pesticide illness reporting is huge in terms of the public’s ability to understand the impacts on farmworkers, though even here we only have information on acute poisoning.”
Acute health problems related to pesticide use have included issues involving the respiratory system, the skin and even the central nervous system. Such problems are fairly straightforward to track, since they’re easily linked to recent pesticide exposure. Chronic problems, on the other hand, are much more difficult, and Reeves says that such data is far harder to come by.
In September, the National Institutes of Health released something of a bombshell, publishing results from a 20-year-long study linking long-term exposure to several of the most commonly used pesticides and a significant increase in the chances for depression among applicators. Several specific pesticides apparently increased the chances of depression by as much as 80 to 90 percent. (The researchers say they accounted for other possible reasons for depression among these individuals.)
Even this study underscored concerns over whom, exactly, this data covers. The NIH, for instance, clarifies that the vast majority of its study focused on farmers, not hired agricultural workers. Reeves says this is typical of the data available – the vast majority completely overlooks non-farmers.
“I would guess farmworkers would suffer depression or other health effects even more than farmers, but they haven’t been studied very much. There’s really very little research on behavioral illnesses related to pesticides, and even that deals almost exclusively with farmers,” she said.
“The newer literature about developmental effects on children is particularly compelling. We do know that exposure to certain pesticides is related to long-term damage to the nervous system, but again, no one has looked at this in depth.”
Linking labor and food safety
Beyond the regulatory process, Reeves points to a new consumer-driven initiative currently underway that she says will go well beyond the guidelines included in the federal Worker Protection Standard.
The Equitable Food Initiative, a multi-stakeholder certification standard, promotes strong labor rights for agricultural workers and seeks to minimize the use of pesticides, among other food safety issues. Any grower applying pesticides will have to offer full reporting on that use.
The standard was unveiled last year, and engaged in its first round of certification at the end of last year’s growing season. Certified products should be appearing on shelves nationwide within just a few weeks, Reeves says.
A central motivating factor behind the initiative is the idea that what is good for farmworkers is good for the products they produce, which, in turn, is good for consumers.
“For instance, farmworkers will get paid to stay home if they’re sick, which is very logical: every other day there’s a big food safety scare, and that’s a huge risk for buyers,” Reeves said.
“Cutting down on those risks does not take just a once-a-year certification. Rather, this system involves the workers on the farm throughout the year, to assure there’s compliance with the standard.”
Costco Wholesale Corp. is one of the first major retailers to become part of the Equitable Food Initiative. And Reeves, who sits on the initiative’s board, says several other major buyers are currently in discussion to follow suit.
“Costco gets that what happens on the farm matters to their customers,” she said, “because greater assurances for farmworkers leads to greater assurance of food safety.”
Although Costco wasn’t able to comment by this story’s deadline, a statement made at last year’s announcement of the Equitable Food Initiative underscored this sense. “[S]afe and wholesome produce,” Arthur D. Jackson, Jr., a vice president for Costco Wholesale, said, “begins with dedicated training of, respect for and protection of farm workers.”