by Tamara Scully
Farm safety takes many different forms. Sometimes safety concerns arise due to the physical environment itself -slippery floors, or misplaced tools – at other times, the proper use and maintenance of equipment is the concern. Sometimes safety is about common sense. Don’t smoke around flammable materials, or bother the bull.
It has long been recognized that farm workers are sometimes marginalized, with worker protection standards often more lax for those working in agriculture than in other occupations. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it will be imposing stricter regulations concerning pesticide application, to help prevent ongoing worker safety concerns.
These standards will update the existing Agricultural Worker Protection Standard adapted in 1992. According to the EPA website, the revised regulations “will afford farm workers similar health protections that are already afforded to workers in other industries.”
These changes will become effective 14 months after being published in the Federal Register, which was to occur by the end of November 2015, allowing educators and farmers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the changes, update training materials and implement the new standards efficiently. These changes will require alteration in worker training, as well as on-farm safety requirements.
Major Revisions
The new regulations are not simply focused on pesticide applicators, although many changes do increase protective equipment standards and training for those actually handling these hazardous chemicals. Other changes were made specifically to reduce the risk of exposure post-application, either in the field, or via contamination on clothing.
Currently, up to 3,000 incidents per year are reported from farms and forestry operations covered by the Worker Protection Standards. Many are believed to go unreported. While extreme incidents may occur, causing immediate illness, it is the day-to-day routine exposure, causing cumulative damage, which is also of concern.
Both pesticide applicators and farm workers working in fields and with crops where pesticides have been applied are included in the revised regulations. Mandatory sign posting to prevent re-entry into fields after application, based on pesticide hazard and residue life, has been expanded. Anyone under 18 cannot handle pesticides. Expanded personal protective equipment standards will insure correct fit, use and training. Specific guidelines for the amount of wash water for flushing of eyes or for decontamination are defined.
Record keeping becomes mandatory. Training and application records will need to be retained for two years. Training for employees will become annual, rather than at the current five year interval. The annual training requirement is already in place in other non-farming occupations where hazardous chemicals are utilized. Annual training of farm workers puts them on par with workers in these other industries.
But all the training is ineffective without documentation that the rules are being followed, or if employees cannot easily access safety information or if it is not presented in a manner in which they can understand it or review it. It also isn’t effective if workers are afraid of retaliation should they report a discrepancy, forcing workers to chose between their health and their job. Requirements on how training information is made available to employees have also been updated.
Farm owners and their immediate families remain free from these regulations. The EPA states that this is to allow small farms exemption from regulatory burdens.
Long Term Health
The National Institutes of Health’s Agricultural Health Study tracks the development of various diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, in voluntary participants who farm, and hold pesticide applicator licenses for highly regulated chemicals. Since 1993, 89,000 farmers and their spouses, from Iowa and North Carolina, have been a part of the study, which follows them throughout the years, assessing their health risk as compared to the non-farming public.
Recent study data has found a link between the use of paraquat or rotenone and the development of Parkinson’s disease. People who routinely used the chemical were more than twice as likely as people who didn’t use these chemicals to develop the illness. However, participants who reported wearing the proper chemical-resistant gloves, and washing hands and changing clothes immediately following pesticide use did not develop the illness at higher rates than the general population.
Likewise, researchers have found a potential link between the use of certain agricultural pesticides and non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL), a cancer of the white blood cells. Participants who used chlorinated insecticides were impacted at higher rate than those who reported not using the chemicals.
Studies examining biomarkers, which potentially could shed light on changes occurring in the body due to agricultural chemical exposure, are underway. A study on the aging patterns of farmers is also being conducted.
Pesticide Applicator Rules Proposed Change
The EPA has also proposed changes to the Certification of Pesticide Applicators rules. Comments closed Dec. 23. These changes, if enacted, will affect those applying restricted use pesticides (RUPs). These include pesticides used in agriculture. Private applicators, such as farmers, as well as commercial applicators, such as landscape professionals, are included in the proposed regulations.
The minimum age of 18 for applicators will be initiated. Renewal will be every three years for all applicators. Fumigation and aerial methods of application will require further training due to the increased risk of hazards. Applicators will be required to show an overall level of competency above that now required.
Currently, those working under direct supervision of a certified applicator do not require training. The proposed rules would require training similar to the Worker Protection Standard as well as require a means of immediate communication between supervised workers and the certified applicator. The certified applicator would also have to supply specific instructions and the product label to the non-certified worker.
Record keeping requirements for those selling RUPs would be enacted. Certified Applicator licenses would include more details of the specific credentials held, and those taking a certified applicator exam would need to show identification.
From equipment manufacturing standards to required fire safety measures and employee training, regulations are often viewed as burdensome. But they do save lives. The EPA’s new Worker Protection Standard, as well as the proposed changes to the Certification of Pesticide Applicators rule, aims to do just that.