A new revision of the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) will be enforced starting Jan. 1, 2017. “The revision of the Worker Protection Standard covers farmers, foresters, and other growers using pesticides on production agriculture crops.” Although there has typically been an exemption for immediate family members, “Even the owner and immediate family must comply with the new Personal Protective Equipment requirements,” stated Jim Harvey, PSU Farm Safety Extension. “These Personal Protection Equipment requirements cover all pesticides, including restricted use, general use, and even organic products that have agricultural use statements on the label. The owner and family members must also respect restricted entry intervals given on the pesticide label.
The new regulations require that if a pesticide label calls for the use of a respirator, certain steps must be followed, in the correct order. Even a certified, enclosed “spray” cab will no longer exempt Handlers from wearing respirators, if the pesticide label calls for its use.
These regulations do, of course, have some potential positive benefits. “Sometimes it takes a generation or more,” explained Harvey, “before we know all the negative aspects of a particular pesticide.” In some cases in recent years, researchers have been compiling evidence that some older pesticides long believed to be not particularly hazardous to handlers, may, in fact, have unsuspected negative health effects.
As of Jan. 1, a pesticide handler who will be spraying farm pesticides that are labeled to require the use of a respirator, must have (and pay for) a respirator fit test, if they will be using the traditional type of respirator that covers only the nose and mouth. For this type of respirator, passing a fit test precludes having facial hair, such as a beard or mustache, which would prevent a good seal around the edges of the respirator. Facial hair would have to be shaved off.
Before taking the fit test, each Handler must have a medical evaluation, which requires filling out a detailed, six-page questionnaire from OSHA, including questions about claustrophobia and any heart or lung problems. “Heart or lung problems pose a hazard to workers trying to ‘suck air through’ a conventional negative pressure respirator, because this stresses the lungs and circulatory system,” Harvey continued.
If a handler fails the medical evaluation, the handler must then get, and pay for, a regular physical. “There may be times,” explained Harvey, “when a person might fail the medical evaluation, but after having the physical exam, could be cleared for wearing a negative pressure respirator.”
The respirator fit test, which will cost a minimum of $80 to $100 per person, according to Harvey, can be taken only after you have passed the medical evaluation, or are declared fit to use a respirator after the physical exam.
“Employers could also purchase a fit test kit,” continued Harvey. It contains a reusable hood which is worn while the employer moves smelling salts around the edges of your respirator.” If you can’t smell the smelling salts, it is assumed that the respirator has the needed tight fit to keep out dangerous pesticide fumes.
However, as Harvey pointed out, “This can create a future liability for employers,” if an employee were to later claim he suffered harm because the test was not administered properly. Employers doing a fit test on employees must follow OSHA protocols.
Also, Harvey pointed out, local fire companies may be willing to do fit tests for a small donation, since they do respirator fit tests on their staff.
There are two options for getting around the recurring costs for fit tests. First, not all pesticides are labeled to require the use of a respirator. Can you substitute one of those? Or you can make a larger investment at the outset that should save money in recurring costs in the long term for you and all your workers. You could invest in a loose fitting Powered Air Purifying Respirator, as Harvey recommends you at least consider. Although it carries a large price tag initially it could eliminate problems and save you money over the coming years. This specialized respirator will exempt you from the fit test, but not the medical exam.
The bad news first: The price tag for this respirator with battery pack is $1300. If you buy a model that plugs into your tractor, the cost will be $800. Serious money. But for some employers, according to Harvey, this considerable investment makes economic sense. “One Penn State Research Facility, for example, purchased these ‘space helmet’ type respirators for their techs who walk up and down the orchard hills with back pack sprayers, a job that could be physically exhausting with the added stress of ‘sucking air’ through a conventional negative pressure respirator. “Their handlers have found less physical stress with the Powered Air Purifying Respirators.”
More positives: This ‘space helmet’ respirator never needs to be fitted. Facial hair does not need to be shaved off. These respirators are loose fitting around the shoulders because they draw in fresh filtered air, under positive pressure, at the back of the neck. Heat exhaustion is less likely with the moving air blowing on the handler. Breathing inside these respirators is not taxing to your heart and lungs.
There are other very real safety benefits as well. The ‘space helmet’ covers the hair and the forehead. “The skin on your forehead is one of the most absorbent parts of your body,” explained Harvey, so this respirator protects that very sensitive skin. It also prevents the hair from collecting spray mist. Many handlers wear cloth caps when they spray, which gradually collect more and more spray chemical. This chemical is held against the forehead and hair whenever the cap is worn. These pricier respirators protect handlers against this very real hazard.
Some degree of ear protection is another side benefit of the ‘space helmet’ respirators. The skin on the ears is a bit more sensitive to pesticides than some areas of the body. Also, to the degree that the ’space helmet’ will also provide a bit of hearing protection, all the better, as many folks discover when they reach their 50’s or so. “Hearing loss is a major occupational hazard of farming.”
Some pesticide labels also specify that protective gloves should be worn. “15 mil unlined nitrile gloves are thick enough for use with many pesticides, but not all,“ continued Harvey. “Check the label to see what thickness and type are called for. I know a Christmas tree grower who ended up in the hospital because he used the wrong type of gloves when mixing a pesticide.”
Although wearing a special chemical-proof apron is a wise idea when mixing and loading a pesticide, be sure to take it off immediately afterward. “These aprons have long thin ties that can get caught in a PTO or flywheel.”
Some pesticides also require eye protection when mixing and loading. “I know a greenhouse grower who came in at 6 a.m. to spray. A hose broke, and the chemical hit his eyes. It was two hours before anyone else came to the greenhouse and found him. Two weeks passed before the grower knew if he would still have his sight,” added Harvey.