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The Federal Worker Protection Standard: A Primer on Its History and Implication of the 2015 Revisions

Volume 5 Issue 3

Tom Hoffmann, WSDA Pesticide Management
Phone: (509) 766-2574  Email: thoffmann@agr.wa.gov

The federal Worker Protection Standard (WPS), in combination with other components of EPA’s pesticide regulatory program, is intended to reduce the risks of injury or illness from pesticide use and contact among pesticide applicators, agricultural workers, pesticide handlers, the general public, and other persons who may be on or near agricultural establishments, with particular consideration to minority and low-income populations.  The regulation primarily seeks to protect agricultural workers (those who perform hand-labor tasks in pesticide-treated crops, such as harvesting, thinning, pruning) and pesticide handlers (those who mix, load and apply pesticides) on farms, forests, and nurseries, and in greenhouses.  The rule impresses on the employer the responsibility for providing protections to workers and handlers on their establishments and to ensure that they have access to information necessary to protect themselves and others during and after a pesticide application.
Partial screencap of chart comparing new and existing federal worker protection standards

Click Image for Chart Comparing New and Existing Protections

The WPS provides a comprehensive collection of pesticide management practices generally applicable to all agricultural pesticide use scenarios in crop production, supplementing the product-specific requirements that appear on pesticide labels.  Risk reduction measures may be characterized as information, protection, or mitigation.  The regulation requires employers to provide workers and handlers with pesticide safety training, posting and notification of treated areas, and information about the pesticide and on entry restrictions, as well as PPE for workers who enter treated areas after pesticide application to perform crop-related tasks and handlers who mix, load, and apply pesticides.

Under authority of the Federal Insecticide Fungicide Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), EPA initiated measures to protect workers, handlers, at-risk groups, and the general public, and the environment from pesticide exposure in two primary ways.

1. EPA includes specific use instructions and restrictions on individual pesticide product labeling. These instructions and restrictions are the result of EPA’s registration and reevaluation processes and are based on the risks of the particular product.  Since users must comply with directions for use and restrictions on a product’s labeling, EPA uses the labeling to convey mandatory requirements for how the pesticide must be used to protect people and the environment from unreasonable adverse effects of pesticide exposure (e.g., physical drift, runoff).

2. EPA enacted the WPS to expand protections against the risks of agricultural pesticides without making product-specific labeling longer and much more complex.  The WPS is a standardized set of requirements for workers, handlers, and their employers that are generally applicable to all agricultural pesticides.  The requirements are incorporated onto agricultural pesticide labels by reference, commonly cited as “label requirement by reference.”

Thus, the WPS augments product labeling instructions to protect workers and handlers from occupational pesticide exposure.  The WPS is incorporated by reference on certain pesticide product labeling by means of a statement in the agricultural use box.  (Specifically, “Use this product only in accordance with its labeling and with the Worker Protection Standard, 40 CFR part 170.”)

The existing WPS was published in 1992 and implemented in 1995.  Since implementation, EPA has sought to ensure that the regulation provides the intended protections and to identify necessary improvements.  The 2015 revisions to the amended 1992 WPS are expected to achieve an overall reduction in incidents of unsafe pesticide exposure and to improve the occupational health of the nation’s agricultural workers and pesticide handlers.  The 2015 revisions considered comments received during the public comment process, as well as information gleaned from reported incidents of pesticide-related illness or injury.

Among other things, EPA expects the changes to:

  • Improve effectiveness of worker and handler training.
  • Improve protections to workers during REIs (Restricted Entry Interval).
  • Improve protections for workers during and after pesticide applications.
  • Expand the information provided to workers, thus improving hazard communication protections.
  • Expand the content of pesticide safety information displayed to improve the display’s effectiveness.
  • Improve the protections for crop advisor employees.
  • Increase the amounts of decontamination water available, thus improving the effectiveness of the decontamination process.
  • Improve the emergency response when workers or handlers experience pesticide exposures.
  • Improve the organization of the WPS, thus making it easier for employers to understand and comply with the rule.
  • Clarify that workers and handlers are covered by the rule only if they are employed, directly or indirectly, by the agricultural establishment (i.e., receiving a salary or wage).
  • Protect adolescents by establishing a minimum age for handlers and for workers who enter a treated area during an REI, but adding an exemption to the minimum age requirement for adolescents who work on an establishment owned by an immediate family member.
  • Improve flexibility for small farmers and members of their immediate family by expanding the definition of immediate family members to be more inclusive and retaining the exemptions from almost all WPS requirements for owners and their immediate family members.

Major revisions incorporated into the 2015 regulation include:

  • Annual mandatory training to inform farmworkers on the required protections.  This increases the likelihood that protections will be followed.  Currently, training is only once every 5 years.
  • Expanded training includes instructions to reduce take-home exposure from pesticides on work clothing and other safety topics.
  • First-time ever minimum age requirement: Children under 18 are prohibited from handling pesticides. (An exemption applies to owners and their immediate family members.)  (NOTE: The Fair Labor Standards Act [FLSA] establishes a minimum age of 16 for youth engaged in occupations deemed hazardous by the Secretary of Labor.  This includes persons handling toxicity category I and II pesticides in agriculture.)
  • Expanded mandatory posting of no-entry signs for the most hazardous pesticides. The signs prohibit entry into pesticide-treated fields until residues decline to a safe level.
  • New no-entry application-exclusion zones up to 100 feet surrounding pesticide application equipment will protect workers and others from exposure to pesticide overspray.
  • Requirement to provide more than one way for farmworkers and their representatives to gain access to pesticide application information and safety data sheets – either centrally-posted or by requesting records.
  • Mandatory record-keeping to improve states’ ability to follow up on pesticide violations and enforce compliance.  Records of application-specific pesticide information, as well as farmworker training, must be kept for two years.
  • Anti-retaliation provisions are comparable to U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) requirements.
  • Changes in personal protective equipment will be consistent with the DOL’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration standards for ensuring respirators are effective, including fit test, medical evaluation, and training.
  • Specific amounts of water to be used for routine washing, emergency eye flushing, and other decontamination, including eye wash systems for handlers at pesticide mixing/loading sites.
  • Continue the exemption for farm owners and their immediate family with an expanded definition of immediate family.

The above table summarizes key provisions between the 1992 WPS regulation and the 2015 revisions.  Additional information is available here.