EPA Revises Agricultural Worker Protection Standard, to the Disappointment of Agriculture Industry Groups

Jody Ferris, MJLST Staffer

An important development on the regulatory front has some agriculture industry groups shaking their heads. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released finalized revisions to the 1992 Agricultural Worker Protection Standard on Sept. 28, 2015 (40 CFR 170). These regulations apply to millions of agricultural workers in fields, forests, orchards, and greenhouses across the country. The regulations are meant to enforce the observation of good safety practices in the use of pesticides by agricultural workers.

The changes to the current requirements include:

-a new minimum age requirement that prohibits children under the age of 18 from handling pesticides.

-mandatory posting of no-entry signs on fields that have been recently treated with highly dangerous pesticides.

-whistleblower protections to protect employees who alert authorities to illegal practices.

-increased frequency of employer provided safety training (now required annually, up from the previous requirement of every five years).

-recordkeeping requirements (records of training must be kept for two years, previous requirements did not require any record keeping).

-increased requirements for use of safety equipment, including fit testing and employee training on use of safety equipment. Recordkeeping of completion of safety equipment training and fit testing is also required. The previous requirements did not require any training, formal fit testing, or record keeping.

Agricultural industry groups are unhappy with many of the revisions to the regulations. A coalition including the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the American Seed Trade Association submitted a 14-page comment letter during the public comment period and claim that their comments were not taken under proper consideration in the final revision of the rule. The coalition argued that since the original regulations were introduced in 1992, there have been significant improvements in worker safety and that acute poisoning events have been greatly reduced, thereby eliminating the need for more stringent regulations. In addition, they argue that the EPA has severely underestimated the financial costs that the new requirements place on agricultural producers. Criticism from the Agricultural Retailers Association includes the concern that the new rules will put employers at risk for increased liability without significantly increasing worker safety.

It is currently unclear whether any regulated parties will seek to challenge the revised regulations in court. It also remains unclear precisely how great a burden the new requirements will place on agricultural producers or how much they will improve the safety of workers until they are followed in practice for some time. It remains to be hoped that the new requirements will indeed significantly improve the safety of agricultural workers on the job and justify any increased burden on employers.

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