A Call to EPA: Update the Worker Protection Standards & Protect Farmworkers from Pesticide Exposure

Improving the health and safety of migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families has been part of Farmworker Justice’s core mission since its founding 32 years ago. Today, we are releasing a new report, Exposed and Ignored: How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers, which outlines the challenges farmworkers face in keeping themselves and their families safe from pesticides. With the release of this report and the testimonies of the many farmworkers visiting Washington this week, we call on the federal government to act now to provide important protections for farmworkers.

Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides in a variety of ways. Workers are at risk for exposure from direct spray, aerial drift, or contact with chemical residues on the crops they are picking and in the soil. Workers who mix, load, or apply pesticides are at an additional risk of exposure due to spills, splashes, and inadequate or missing protective equipment.

The EPA estimates that as many as 20,000 farmworkers experience pesticide poisoning each year but the real number is likely to be much higher as many workers do not have access to medical care nor is there a national system for keeping track of identified incidents.

For example, last year a crop duster sprayed pesticides over 40 farmworkers working in Arizona. Firefighters were called to the scene and set up a decontamination area where they had the workers remove their clothing in the cold night air and sprayed them with a fire hose. Ten workers were sent to the hospital for treatment. While this case received some local media attention, many more incidents go unreported in the press and even to appropriate authorities.

But the dangers of pesticide exposure extend beyond the field. Farmworker families, especially children, are at risk of elevated pesticide exposure. Pesticide residues cling to workers’ tools, clothes, shoes, and skin and follow them into their homes. Often, their homes are immediately beside or within the fields. Childcare facilities and schools border fields. Many pesticides spread through the air, drifting off target.

The close proximity of agricultural fields to residential areas and schools makes it nearly impossible for farmworkers and their families to escape exposure because pesticides are in the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the soil where they work and play.

The nature of working with crops will likely always involve some occupational danger. But farmworkers deserve more than the set of protections they have now. Regulatory authority for pesticide exposure is in the hands of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The regulations known as the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) have not been updated in over 20 years and are ineffective in preventing exposure in the fields. More than a decade ago EPA admitted that even when there is full compliance with the WPS, “risks to the workers still exceed EPA’s level of concern.” A decade later, those concerns should not be forgotten. It’s time to make changes. Revisions to the Worker Protection Standard are urgently needed to protect farmworkers and agricultural communities at large.

Simple revisions to the WPS should require:

  • Better (and more frequent) training on health risks of pesticides and steps to avoid exposure and injury
  • Worker access to timely information about the use, location and hazards of specific pesticides on the farm where they work.
  • Special protections for pesticide handlers.
  • Improved enforcement of safety standards at the state level.

Currently the WPS only requires farmworkers to receive general information about all pesticides but not the specific pesticides being used at their workplace. Every field uses different pesticides. Each pesticide has different health effects. Farmworkers should not receive less information about chemical hazards than workers in other industries.

Just as we establish standards and regulations to protect workers in every industry, we must address the health and safety of the farmworkers who labor each day to put food on our tables. Working and living in hazardous conditions should not be the price farmworkers have to pay to feed their families – and yours. Please call on the EPA to step up to its obligations. Now is the time to update the Worker Protection Standard. Every day we wait is another day that farmworkers are needlessly exposed to toxic pesticides.