TAMPA — Some area growers are concerned with proposed national rule changes meant to add more protections for workers exposed to pesticides and other chemicals in the fields.
They aren’t opposed to providing added protections, but to the cost of implementing the string of rules the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering.
The rule changes meant to protect agricultural workers from the ill effects of pesticide exposure could cost an average of $30 per employee – something that may have little effect on farms in the Midwest with massive fields, but few employees.
But in Florida, where there may be 150 workers in a 500-acre field, the cost will be much higher per farm.
There are some 2,466 commercial farms in Hillsborough County, alone, according to the most recent census released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Among the crops Hillsborough County is known for are its winter strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and cantaloupes.
This will be the first Worker Protection Standard update since 1992. The changes are meant to reduce pesticide exposure by improving training, notification of what chemicals are applied, communication materials, use of protective equipment and decontamination supplies, according to the EPA.
The changes would include more record-keeping and documentation that workers could carry from one farm to the next to prove they have been trained in how to protect themselves. They also provide for more decontamination equipment, like better eye wash stations and showers near the fields.
“It’s just the cost of it,” said Hillsborough County Agribusiness Development Manager Simon Bollin, who has met with local growers. “Nobody likes more regulation, especially farmers, who tend to be a little more independent than some. It doesn’t necessarily make common sense to a lot of people in the room,” because of the edicts that every farm must add new decontamination equipment and create longer paperwork trails, he said.
Bollin said he believes the $30 per worker estimate is low.
Michelle Williamson, with G&F Farms in Dover, said she, too, is concerned about the cost.
“The issue is the additional paperwork,” she said. “We are a two-man operation at G&F Farms, myself and one other girl in the office. During (the strawberry growing) season we have about 120 employees.” And she’s not sure the EPA’s cost estimate is accurate, she said.
“Some of our experts through the Florida Farm Bureau and Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association are still going through” the proposed changes, she said.
“Depending on what comes of it, I might have to hire somebody to administer it, because now they allow five days after you hire someone to train them and with these changes, we’d have just two days to train.”
Williamson said her farm and many others already provide training for every employee every year, even though that is not yet required.
The proposed changes also require employers to provide notification to field workers on every chemical applied to which they might be exposed.
Williamson is concerned about providing that information to third-party handlers who would manage paperwork for farm workers. “One of the biggest things I have concerns about is they have created an authorized representative for each employee,” Williamson said. “You have to provide to them the same information you would provide to your worker. That is a concern to us, because we could be providing personal information about an employee.”
Much of the concern is connected to the sheer number of employees involved.
“Farming is a lot more hands-on in Florida and there is a lot of mobility,” Bollin said. “The 150 people you start with often aren’t the 150 people you end up with at the end of the season.”
When it’s all said and done, Williamson said, she’s not convinced the new rules would do anything more to protect farm workers from harm. “They don’t know the true effect these changes will have to worker safety.”
According to an email from the EPA the revisions are based on “current research. We expect the revisions, once final, to prevent harmful effects from exposure to pesticides for agricultural workers and pesticide handlers; child farm workers and farm worker families and other vulnerable groups, such as minority and low-income populations.”
A complete list of the proposed changes can be found on the EPA web site, epa.gov, under the heading “Proposed Agricultural Worker Protection Standard.”
The public has until Aug. 18 to comment on the changes at the EPA web site or in writing to: OPP Docket, Environmental Protection Agency Docket Center (EPA/DC), Mail code: 28221T, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC 20460.