updated 9/23/2004 6:38:23 PM ET 2004-09-23T22:38:23

California became the first state Thursday to ban weeding by hand on most farms, saying the work is too backbreaking for laborers.

Under a rule approved by the California Occupational Safety and Health Division, farmworkers, in most cases, will not have to stoop to pull weeds, but will instead be given long-handled tools that will allow them to work without bending over. The rule takes effect within two weeks.

The regulation aims to prevent the “real and substantial risk of back injury” caused by stooping to weed or thin plants by hand, Cal-OSHA said. The workplace-safety agency had no estimate of how many California field hands hurt their backs.

Agriculture is one of California’s top industries, supporting over 1 million jobs and contributing nearly $28 billion to the state’s economy. There is little data on the prevalence of hand-weeding on California farms. But crops such as lettuce, carrots, celery and strawberries are considered so delicate that they are weeded by hand.

“The same kind of crops we have here are grown in other nations, other states. The crops aren’t unique to California,” said Mike Webb of the Western Growers Association, which represents farms. Yet, he said, “we’re going to be the only place on the face of the Earth that has a regulation or law that outlaws hand-weeding.”

Growers and farmworkers have been battling over the practice of hand-weeding for years.

In 1975, California banned a short-handle hoe that required workers to stoop low for hours at a time as they pulled weeds. At United Farm Worker Union leader Cesar Chavez’s funeral, his grandchildren placed the 12-inch tool on an altar as a symbol of the labor activist’s effort to improve the lives of farmworkers.

While the ban ended the use of the tool, it did not prohibit workers from weeding by hand. In 1993, Cal-OSHA found that prolonged hand-weeding caused the same debilitating back injuries associated with use of the short hoe.

The new rule says farms cannot require workers to weed by hand for extended periods of time unless they can show that long-handled tools are not effective.

If the workers must hand-weed, they must be given longer breaks, and there are restrictions on how much time they must spend toiling at the task.

Len Welsh, acting chief of Cal-OSHA, said the regulation will be a challenge to enforce. With most OSHA rules, “there’s a particular tool that’s not allowed or a substance you can’t expose workers to,” Welsh said. “Here, you’re talking about a work practice, something completely behavioral.”

The Western Growers Association opposed previous attempts to enact legislation covering hand-weeding because they were outright bans, Webb said. He said the Cal-OSHA rule is more reasonable, he said.

“We’ve talked to a number of our growers,” he said. “They’ve agreed it’s something they can live with.”

Organic farmers who rely on hand-weeding are exempt from the rule.

“Because they don’t use pesticides, organic growers have more of a weed problem than non-organic growers,” Webb said. “Without an exemption, it would have jeopardized the organic industry.”

Mike Meuter, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents farmworkers and pushed for the new rule, said it will not be too burdensome on growers.

“California’s farmworkers deserve these protections,” he said. “It’s been too long.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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