If knowledge is power, in the workplace, it’s also protection. But due to a split in occupational safety regulations, knowledge and protection are something that industrial employees seem to have more of than farmworkers – despite the fact that farm labor requires frequently working with, and face-deep in, crops treated with hazardous chemicals.
Protections for industrial vs. farm workers
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) applies to “all workers exposed to hazardous chemicals in all industrial sectors,” and requires employers to inform workers of the health effects of specific chemicals, as well as what protective measures are available.
But the category of “industrial” workers, of course, does not include those who cultivate or harvest agricultural plants and crops on farmland. These workers are covered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s agricultural worker protection standard – 40 C.F.R. 170.
While this standard requires employers to provide training on the hazards of chemicals and how to prevent exposure “in a manner that the workers can understand (such as through a translator),” even the EPA has acknowledged it is in dire need of an update in order to have the enforcement and communication requirements needed to protect agricultural workers.
Pesticides endanger Spanish-speaking farmworkers
According to a report issued last month by Farmworker Justice, the majority of U.S. farmworkers are native Spanish speakers and are unable to read English, making language a significant barrier for protection. The advocacy group has recommended that the agency improve safety training for farmworkers by requiring that the health and safety information on pesticide product labels be translated into Spanish, along with information on first aid and personal protective equipment. Perhaps more importantly, the non-profit recommends the EPA establish – and require – a method for verifying that farmworkers comprehend the safety information.
Plans for improving farmworkers’ protections
According to Bloomberg’s Bureau of National Affairs, the EPA has said it plans to release a proposed revision for the standard – the first in 20 years – in late spring 2014. The changes would improve, among other things, farmworkers’ training on pesticide hazards, the notification of areas treated with pesticides and how to prevent “take-home” exposure via clothing or personal protective equipment.
Beyond prevention, Farmworker Justice is also advocating for: required medical monitoring of workers potentially exposed to hazardous chemicals; the required reporting of pesticide use and poisoning incidents; and the establishment of a national incident reporting system. The organization estimates that the 20,000 yearly incidents of farmworker poisoning due to pesticides could represent just a portion of the total, as affected workers may not be aware that an illness is due to the exposure, or because workers may be hesitant to report incidents, fearing they will be fired or, in the case of illegal immigrants, deported.