The EPA today proposed strengthening the Worker Protection Standard, which has not been updated in more than twenty years, to address many agricultural pesticide safety concerns.
The federal Worker Protection Standard, first adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, is notoriously difficult to enforce, and does not require record-keeping to document whether rules have actually been followed. It requires only minimal training on the risks that pesticide exposure can pose to workers’ children and families, so many workers don’t find out about those hazards until after the worst has happened. Additionally, it was designed with only adult workers in mind, but agriculture is different from most other industries in that it allows children to join labor crews at 12 years old – even at 10 in some crops – and these children are exposed to pesticides on the job.
“Each year pesticide exposure poisons tens of thousands of the men, women and children who harvest our food, yet regulations to protect these vital workers have not been updated to address this growing problem,” said Virginia Ruiz, Director of Occupational and Environmental Health for Farmworker Justice. “These injuries, illnesses, and deaths are preventable, and we urge the EPA to implement stronger protections as soon as possible.”
An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States. The nation’s 2 to 2.4 million farmworkers face the greatest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals. Ten to twenty thousand farmworkers are injured by pesticides on the job every year in the US. Short-term effects of pesticide exposures can include skin and eye injuries, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and even death. Long-term exposure on the job can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease for farmworkers, their families, and their children.
“We appreciate the EPA moving forward on this very important issue of stronger worker protections regarding toxic pesticides. We will review the proposed changes to evaluate their effectiveness in reducing pesticide poisoning of the people who harvest our food and their family members,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice. “We, and other farmworker advocacy groups, will comment on the proposal and mobilize the public to show broad public support for stronger protections.”
Last week 52 members of Congress, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Linda Sanchez of California, urged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a letter to release the proposed rule, stating that the current agricultural worker protection standard is "limited" and "insufficient" to protect workers from the hazards of handling pesticides. The same week, California-based Pesticide Action Network submitted a petition to McCarthy to strengthen the Worker Protection Standard, signed by more than 18,000 citizens.
The proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard can be viewed on the EPA’s website. The revisions will also be posted in the Federal Register in March, at which time the EPA will begin accepting comments from the public for 90 days.
To learn more about the harm caused by pesticide exposure, click here to read Farmworker Justice’s report Exposed and Ignored: How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers.
The House Republicans’ immigration reform principles are an encouraging step forward in the necessary process to address a broken immigration system. But they mistakenly neglect the importance of opening up a path for hard-working immigrant families already in this country to become full participants in their communities and our country through citizenship.
The best way to ensure a strong and stable work force for American agriculture is through legal protection on the job and in communities for the roughly one million undocumented farmworkers already here and on the job. Our country benefits when its workers and their families are fully engaged in civic life.
“We are encouraged that the House is taking a preliminary step to address the immigration crisis in our country; however, the House GOP’s approach falls short of what is needed for 11 million people already living and working in our country,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice. “Our country will be stronger if hard-working members of our society are covered by labor laws and able to fully participate in civic life as citizens.”
Last year, the United Farm Workers and a coalition of agricultural employers negotiated for months, with the support of a bipartisan group of Senators, eventually reaching a tough-but-fair agricultural stakeholder immigration agreement. That compromise establishes a roadmap for undocumented farmworkers and their children to earn legal permanent residency and apply for citizenship if they meet a series of qualifications. Farmworker Justice urges the House and the President to consider the importance of that roadmap as they continue to address immigration reform.
“The men and women who labor under difficult and dangerous conditions to put food on our tables deserve a balanced and fair response to the immigration crisis in our country. We urge the House, Senate, and President Obama to continue working towards much-needed immigration reform,” said Goldstein.
Farmworkers and their advocates welcomed news that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon propose revisions to the Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which provides minimal workplace protections against pesticide exposures for farmworkers. A coalition of farmworker, public health, and other non-partisan organizations has long urged the EPA to include stronger protections for farmworkers in the WPS.
It has been more than 20 years since these rules have been updated and the EPA has admitted for more than a decade that the standards are inadequate. Following a recently completed review by the Office of Management and Budget, advocates expect the EPA will publish the proposed rule for public comment in the next few weeks. Advocates would like the updated rules to include improved safety training requirements, safety precautions limiting farmworkers’ contact with pesticides, and mechanisms to improve enforcement of workplace protections.
An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States with our nation’s 1–2 million farmworkers facing the highest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals. The federal government estimates that there are 10,000–20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually. Short-term effects of pesticide exposures include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and even death. Cumulative long-term exposures can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease for farmworkers, their families, and their children.
Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice submitted a petition to the EPA in November 2011, on behalf of United Farm Workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc., PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United), Farm Worker Pesticide Project (FWPP), California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF), and the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), urging it to strengthen the outdated and weak WPS.
“While most Americans benefit from broad workplace protections, farmworkers are fundamentally disadvantaged and face dangerous exposure to poisons over the course of their working life,” said Eve Gartner, attorney for Earthjustice, a public interest law firm. “We urge the EPA to offer farmworkers a more protective safeguard.”
“Each year pesticide exposure poisons tens of thousands of farmworkers and their families, leading to injury, illness, and death,” said Virginia Ruiz, Director of Occupational and Environmental Health at Farmworker Justice. “We applaud the administration for taking this step to help protect the men, women and children who labor to put food on our tables. We hope that the EPA’s revised Worker Protection Standard will include important safeguards for farmworkers and strengthen their right to a safe workplace.”
“Farmworkers have waited long enough,” said Tirso Moreno, General Coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida. “Every day without stronger regulations is a day where a farmworker risks short and long term health effects from workplace pesticide exposure. The time is now. Farmworkers need improved WPS standards.”
“The nation’s 2 million farmworkers deserve the level of workplace protections provided to other workers,” said Dr. Margaret Reeves, Senior Scientist with PANNA. “Protections for workers from pesticide exposure also means protection for farmworker children and families.”
While speaking to the farm community in his home district on Monday, House Speaker John Boehner responded to a question about immigration reform by saying, “I'm still working with the President, working with my colleagues in a bipartisan way, and the Congress to move this issue along.” This statement represents a positive turn after the Speaker stated that immigration reform would be difficult because many Members of the House don’t trust the President to enforce the law. Boehner’s previous statement came after the release of Republican standards on immigration reform when many Members of his caucus expressed the opinion that the House should not take up immigration reform this year for political reasons. Roll Call is conducting a whip count of Republican House Members support of Boehner’s immigration principles. Currently, 18 Members have responded that they support the standards, 2 have responded that they possibly support them, 34 Members oppose the standards and the rest are either undecided, declined to comment or have not responded.
House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that House Democrats will be coming to a decision as to whether or not to move forward with a discharge petition on comprehensive immigration reform bill, H.R. 15. A discharge petition is a procedural mechanism to bring a bill to the House floor for a vote by bypassing the committees and/or House leadership. The petition must have a majority of House Members (218) sign on to it to move a bill. H.R. 15 currently has 196 Democratic cosponsors, 5 of whom are non-voting members, and 3 Republican cosponsors. Discharge petitions are largely viewed as flouting leadership and the three Republican cosponsors of H.R. 15, Representatives Valadao (CA), Denham (CA) and Ros-Lehtinen (FL), have said that they would not sign a discharge petition. The Minority Leader plans to meet with stakeholders this week to discuss the strategy.
Immigration advocates and some politicians have increased calls for President Obama to decrease the number of deportations. Obama has deported around 2 million people, more than any other President. It makes little sense to spend millions of dollars and inflict great harm on families by deporting individuals who would be eligible for legalization under the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill or similar legislation. On Presidents’ Day, about 30 faith leaders, immigrants and other advocates were arrested in front of the White House as part of a protest against the President’s deportation policy organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and the United Methodist Church. More recently, Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of la Raza (NCLR), called President Obama “the deporter-in-chief” and urged him to stop the deportations. On Tuesday, at an NCLR awards dinner, Senator Menendez (NJ) echoed her call for an end to deportations and said that the President should take additional administrative action to keep families together.
Farmworkers and other local groups are protesting the building of an ICE detention facility in Santa Maria, CA. While ICE says that the facility will only be used to process immigrants who are convicted criminals, the farmworkers say that it will make them feel unsafe and they may choose to go work in other parts of California if it is built. Santa Maria is in Santa Barbara County and is an important agricultural production area.
Fast for Families Across America launched a bus tour last week in Los Angeles. The tour will take two routes one through the Southern United States and one through the Northern United States reuniting in Washington, DC. The buses will visit over 75 Congressional districts to meet with local advocates and community members to “underscore the moral urgency for Congress to pass commonsense immigration reform this year.”
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Immigration reform updates
Immigration is a critically important issue for farmworkers. Learn about current legislation proposals impacting farmworkers.
Learn about the history of guestworker programs, H-2A program for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B visa program.