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EPA Seeks Public Comment on Farm Worker Protection Standards, Activist Say Standards Don't Go far Enough

First Posted: Aug 16, 2014 09:34 AM EDT
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Where did it all go wrong for Xiaomi?
Elvia Vasquez of Oxnard, California

Photo : Earthjustice

There are just three days left for the public to weigh in on the Environmental Protection Agency's farmer worker protection standards.

The revised standards came out February in order to protect the nation's two million farm workers and their families from pesticide exposure. The deadline for comments is Monday, Jan. 18.

The standards include safe use of pesticides, prevention and treatment of pesticide exposure, and increased training and signage. Children under the age of 16 are barred from handling all pesticides, with an exemption for family farms, and workers and others near treated fields will be protected from overspray and fumes.

The EPA said the standards were "an important milestone for the farm workers who plant, tend, and harvest the food we put on our tables each day."

The protection standards update those first established in 1992. EPA administrators consulted with federal and state partners and farm workers, farmers, and industry.

Despite these revised standards, advocates argue they are not equivalent to protections most workers receive under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and leave the men, women and children who produce the nation's food less protected than other workers.

The question of parity of farm workers with other workers is uppermost and stems from a negative pre-emption clause. In the 1970s, a district court of appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that OSHA's health and safety standards did not apply to farm workers because OSHA's role was pre-empted by EPA's role to protect farm workers.

The court ruled since EPA already has the authority to deal with pesticides and see that they are properly used as the agency responsible for registering them, it had ample authority to establish and enforce health and safety standards for farm workers.

Andrea Delgado, legislative representative at Earthjustice, said the new standards are an improvement on the 1992 standards. Then workers were trained in pesticide handling every five years, and now they were will receive training each year. She also appreciates the EPA requirement that employers provide medical assistance within 15 minutes of learning about a pesticide exposure.

"While that's good, it's not good enough because we think emergency medical assistance should be immediate," Delgado said. Other industries are required to act within three to four minutes of a life-threatening injury.

"If it is not life threatening, it would be within 15 minutes. Why would it be so much more time for you to think about transportation and where you are taking someone who is experiencing serious chemical exposure, pesticide poisoning -- why would farm workers be expected to wait longer than that?" she added.

But there are setbacks in the new standards. Originally there was a requirement for farmers to post a pesticide application announcement in a centralized location.

"The EPA is rolling back that proposal and eliminating it with this information only being made available to workers upon request. This is something that is ludicrous. This is something where the farm worker organizations, labor groups, farmer groups everyone has weighed in and said this is absolutely outrageous," said Delgado.

She added, "When you are looking at a population of workers, over two million of them, majority Latino immigrants, with largely limited English proficiency, they are already afraid of intimidation and retaliation and job loss for so many reasons, and the EPA is telling them you're to ask the boss for that information! Why set a barrier and limitation to a worker's right to know?"

Asked about this rollback, the EPA said stakeholders had said the postings were a burdensome responsibility, despite being a crucial notice for workers.

There are protections for the pesticide handler -- someone who sprays, mixes or loads pesticides. According to Delgado, the expectation is a hazmat suit with a mask and gloves for employees working with pesticides, but she said they are not wearing those protections and they are not adequately trained.

Before the spring of this year, there was no age limit for a pesticide handler; now it is set at age 16. Delgado said there are also implications for teens' health, as they are still developing, especially their minds and their reproductive system, and many of these pesticides are highly toxic to both, and could lead to chronic diseases later.

Elvia Vasquez of Oxnard, California worked in the fields of Southern California picking strawberries, lettuce and broccoli for nearly a decade, "I would get rashes and headaches when forced to enter the strawberry fields that had been sprayed with pesticides only hours before." She no longer works as a farm worker and now does translation work for others in her community. She works to educate current farm workers about the dangers of pesticide exposure.

There is still chance to comment on the standards, but they must be submitted by Monday, February 18.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article, quoting an Earthjustice spokesperson, erroneously identified the maximum response time allowed for most industries after a life-threatening injury. It is three to four minutes, not one to two minutes.

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