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New Farmworker Rule Prohibits Children, Teens from Handling Pesticides

The federal government for the first time has set a minimum age of 18 for the handling of pesticides on agribusiness farms.
Image: Farmworkers in central Fla.
File photo: Celestino Galindo Dominguez, 34, of Veracruz, Mexico, picks oranges at a citrus farm owned by Sorrells Brothers Inc. in the Central Florida town of Arcadia, Fla. Friday, May 11, 2007. Lynne Sladky / AP

New federal rules will prohibit children and teens under 18 from handling pesticides on agribusiness farms, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

The evised Worker Protection Standard will apply in all states and won't apply to family farms. It marks the first time the federal government has set a minimum age requirement for the handling of pesticides and the first update to the farmworker protection laws in 20 years. Other states have age minimums, but no national standard exists.

The rules give farmworkers the kinds of protections that other workers get, said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America.

"We just celebrated this weekend the 50th anniversary of the brave women and men who walked out on strike in Delano (California), first forming the United Farmworkers and today's announcement is a dream come true for all of those folks who fought so hard in those very early days," Rodriguez said.

The 18-year-old minimum marks a shift from a proposal made in February 2014, which set the age at 16 and drew heavy criticism from farmworker advocates. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency received a wealth of comments on that proposal.

"It seemed very clear based on the science that was provided to us that there are good reasons to look at actually raising that to 18 and we felt that was most appropriate," McCarthy said.

"Primarily there's been a lot of research done of late on the brains of our children and how they develop," McCarthy said, adding that if there are so many other laws on the books that go to 18 for hazardous work conditions, "there's nothing we think deserves closer scrutiny and attention than the handling of pesticides."

The rules also addressed a concern about access to information about pesticides and their hazards and chemicals that they contain. The new rules provide more than one way to get that information through central posting of that information and through request of records.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez said his agency's Wage and Hour Division will use its access to farm fields when it is conducting investigations to "spread the word" about the dangers of pesticides and distribute EPA information about the new protections. Also it will use its H2A program to help train employers.

"We have a lot of interaction points with farmworkers and employers and we intend to use them so all of the nation's agricultural workers will enjoy these critical protections because these workers are doing remarkably important work to ensure we can indeed feed the nation and indeed feed many parts of the world," Perez said.

According to the EPA, 1,800 to 3,000 pesticide exposure incidents are reported, but there is widespread underreporting.

The rules also will:

– Change mandatory training for informing workers of the protections farms are required to provide from every five years to annually.

– Provide whistleblower protections, including for farmworkers who are not legally in the U.S.

– Expand requirements on record keeping to improve state enforcement and follow up on violations.

The rules are to be published in the Federal Register and should become effective in 14 months.

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