Soapbox

Farmworkers need better safety protection now

Farmworkers are trying to get the Environmental Protection Agency to improve and finalize the Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Workers, which hasn’t been updated for 20 years.
Farmworkers are trying to get the Environmental Protection Agency to improve and finalize the Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Workers, which hasn’t been updated for 20 years. Associated Press file

Nearly 1 million agricultural laborers in California grow the food that ends up on dinner tables all over the U.S. – and they often get sick in the process.

These farmworkers – California is home to more than a third of all agricultural workers in the U.S. – lack the protection they need to keep them safe and healthy.

If you worked among farmworkers on the Central Coast and could see the problems these workers face firsthand, you would know that they suffer from headaches, vertigo, cataracts and fungi that eat away their fingernails. They face greater risks of cancer and neurological damage, and live in fear of another exposure or medical problem.

Growers spray and apply some 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides and herbicides on farms, nurseries and greenhouses each year in the U.S. to protect plants from insects and kill weeds. But not only do the toxic chemicals hurt weeds and insects, they hurt workers. Farmworkers experience some 20,000 pesticide poisonings each year, partly because of the lack of safety training and standards, protective equipment, or knowledge about workplace chemicals.

Farmworkers and their allies around the country have been spreading the word about the conditions farmworkers face. We are trying to get the Environmental Protection Agency to improve and finalize the Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Workers, which hasn’t been updated for 20 years.

A stronger standard sounds likes such an abstract thing until I tell you what it would mean for farmworkers and our children. It would mean requiring that growers do something as simple as call emergency medical assistance immediately when their workers are exposed to excessive levels of pesticides. It would mean increasing the minimum age for handling pesticides to 18, so our children would not have to mix, load and apply toxic pesticides. This is hazardous work that threatens the development and future of our children.

Farmworkers deserve to know when pesticides have been recently applied so they can avoid unnecessary exposure to these toxic chemicals. We need signs to be posted in the fields to notify workers, and we need direct access to a central location where we can find critical information. Why should farmworkers have to ask the boss for that information?

The EPA must also restrict entry to farms and other properties that are next to fields that have been sprayed recently, so the drift of toxic chemicals from pesticide applications are not ending up in the lungs of nearby farmworkers when the wind blows.

The workers I talk to often don’t get gloves to protect their hands, other safety equipment or sufficient training about the best ways to protect themselves.

Often, training is offered in English even though the vast majority of farmworkers have a limited understanding of English. Training needs to be offered in a language farmworkers comprehend with the help of translators whenever necessary.

Farmworkers endure incredibly hard and painful work to earn a living with dignity and with the hope that if they work hard, they will be able provide their families with a brighter future and a piece of the American dream.

Many are afraid to talk because they fear being fired. They lack whistleblower protections that could help them speak up if they see violations of their rights and federal safety requirements. The Obama administration has a moral obligation to update the Worker Protection Standard in a way that will provide meaningful protections for farmworkers for decades to come. Farmworkers’ health and safety is on the line and we cannot afford further delay.

How long should the people who are so essential to our economy have to wait? As Californians enjoy the fruits of our wonderful bounty this spring and summer, I hope President Barack Obama and high-level officials at the EPA will take action to protect the very people who help bring it to our markets and tables.

Farmworkers and their allies are counting down to Aug. 18, a year after more than 200,000 public comments urged the EPA to finalize a strong standard. We are asking Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to do right by farmworkers and our children. The time is now.

Suguet Lopez is executive director of Lideres Campesinas, a statewide women’s farm organization.

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