By Brenda Flanagan
Farmworkers picked blueberries under a hot sun in Hammonton. That’s tough enough. It’s potential exposure to toxic pesticides that worries advocates even more. When victims don’t call out sick, it’s a hard problem to manage.
“They don’t report it for fear of losing their jobs or losing the day’s wages, if they’re ill. So they go to work when they’re ill, whether it’s rashes or respiratory problems or anything of that nature,” said John Gorman, regional chief of pesticides and toxic substances for the EPA.
Government officials gathered at the Atlantic Blueberry Company to unveil tougher regulations aimed at protecting U.S. farmworkers from pesticide poisoning. It’s the first federal rules update in 24 years. Among the upgrades: farm labor must be trained before working in fields where pesticides were used — no more five-day grace period. And that training must happen every year. New Jersey now mandates only once every five years.
“We all want farms to do well and be profitable. We also need to make sure the health of farmworkers are consistently protected. And I want to emphasize that these are not mutually exclusive goals. Here at the Atlantic Blueberry Farm, we see that we can achieve both: a prosperous farm and healthy farmworkers,” said Judith Enck, regional administrator for the EPA.
The rules require OSHA-certified respirators and at least three gallons of water for washing and decontamination. They also require better notification about safety hazards and mandate only workers 18 and older can handle pesticides. Jersey’s already enforcing the higher age limit.
“We ask them specific questions: where do you work? What exactly do you do? Are you exposed to pesticides?” said NJDEP Worker Protection Services Unit Supervisor Nancy Santiago. “The language sometimes is a barrier and that’s the reason that New Jersey has translated most of the materials into Spanish.”
Different states enforce their own patchwork of regulations. The EPA’s new rules will set uniform standards. The Garden State’s got some 13,000 farmworkers and more than 9,000 farms. The playing field isn’t always level. A big grower like Atlantic Blueberry already follows most of the stricter regulations.
“I’m just not expecting a big change for us because we’re kind of already there. But for some smaller growers it may be a bit of a change for them,” said Atlantic Blueberry Company Integrated Pest Management Supervisor Julie Schneider.
“The goal here is to get a level playing field so everybody in the country, in the same business is doing the same thing, in the same way, so that we’re getting protection for the workers,” said Gorman.
The new rules take effect Jan. 2. For many farmers it could mean an added expense, but advocates hope it will help shield workers who might be afraid to report pesticide exposure.