EPA Announces Revisions to Its Worker Protection Standard

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On September 28, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced revisions to its worker protection standard. EPA states that these revisions are intended to “enhance the protections provided to agricultural workers, pesticide handlers, and other persons under the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) by strengthening elements of the existing regulation, such as training, notification, pesticide safety and hazard communication information, use of personal protective equipment, and the providing of supplies for routine washing and emergency decontamination.”

Among the changes to the WPS are the following:

  • Training: The final rule retains proposed content expansions that have been the subject of considerable discussion and concern (e.g., provisions that EPA intends to reduce take-home exposure) and the requirement for employers to ensure that workers and handlers receive pesticide safety training every year (increased from existing rules that require training every five years). EPA has eliminated the proposed training “grace period,” that would have allowed employers to delay providing full pesticide safety training to workers under certain circumstances.
  • Notification: The final rule retains the proposed requirements for employers to: (1) post warning signs around treated areas in outdoor production when the product used has a restricted-entry interval (REI) greater than 48 hours; and (2) provide to workers performing early-entry tasks (i.e., entering a treated area when an REI is in effect), information about the pesticide used in the area where they will work, the specific task(s) to be performed, the personal protective equipment (PPE) required by the labeling, and the amount of time the worker may remain in the treated area. EPA has not promulgated the proposed requirement for employers to keep a record of the information provided to workers performing early-entry tasks.
  • Hazard Communication: The final rule requires employers to post pesticide application information and a safety data sheet (SDS) for each pesticide used on the establishment at a central location on the establishment (the “central display”). This is a departure from the proposal to eliminate the existing requirement for a central display of pesticide application-specific information. The final rule also requires the employer to maintain and make available to workers and handlers, their designated representatives, and treating medical personnel upon request, the pesticide application-specific information and the SDSs for pesticides used on the establishment for two years. EPA has eliminated the proposed requirement for the employer to maintain copies of the labeling for each product used on the establishment for two years.
  • Requirements During Pesticide Applications: The final rule requires an “application exclusion zone,” that is, the area immediately surrounding the application equipment, from which workers and other persons must be excluded. An application exclusion zone of 100 feet horizontally from the application equipment in all directions applies when the pesticide is applied by any of the following methods: (1) aerially; (2) air blast application; (3) as a spray using a spray quality (droplet spectrum) of smaller than medium (volume median diameter of less than 294 microns); or (4) as a fumigant, smoke, mist, or fog. An application exclusion zone of 25 feet horizontally from the application equipment in all directions applies when the pesticide is sprayed from a height of greater than 12 inches from the planting medium using a spray quality (droplet spectrum) of medium or larger (volume median diameter of 294 microns or greater). This “application exclusion zone” differs from the proposed “entry-restricted areas,” that would have extended a specified distance around the entire treated area during application based on the application equipment used. The final rule requires handlers to suspend application, rather than cease application, if they are aware of any person in the application exclusion zone other than a properly trained and equipped handler involved in the application.
  • Minimum Age: The final rule increases the minimum age for handlers and workers performing early-entry tasks from a proposed 16 years old to at least 18 years old. EPA states it increased the minimum age from 16 to 18 based on “comments received and an evaluation of existing literature related to adolescents’ development of maturity and judgment.” EPA provides an exemption from minimum age requirements for adolescents working on an establishment owned by an immediate family member. The final rule does not require the employer to record workers’ or handlers’ birthdates as part of the training record, but does require the employer to verify they meet the minimum age requirements.
  • PPE: The final rule cross-references certain Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements for respirator use for which employers will be required to comply. In response to comments, the final rule expands the respirators subject to fit testing beyond the proposal to include filtering facepiece respirators. The final rule maintains the existing exception from the handler PPE requirements when using a closed system to transfer or load pesticides, and adopts a general performance standard for closed systems, which differs from the specific design standards based on California’s existing standard for closed systems discussed in the proposal.

EPA received a significant number of comments on the proposed rule, which has generated significant controversy. While it appears that EPA has modified the final WPS in certain respects in response to concerns raised, there remain many provisions that are controversial and will require significant work, with significant costs, by agricultural and handler employees to meet.

Controversy regarding these new requirements is longstanding. At its most simple form, critics of increasing the stringency of the current regulations ask why significant changes were needed after twenty years of greater protection offered by the existing regulatory requirements. In addition, over the intervening years, for a variety of reasons, many (not all) of the most hazardous pesticides have been removed from the market or otherwise are used less. More complex concerns address potential jurisdictional overreaches and the paltry record supporting what some view as expansive and expensive regulatory requirements. Others, not surprisingly, cite the number of reported (and unreported) incidents as proof for the need nonetheless to improve the extent and effectiveness of the current regulations. What EPA has issued here as the final revisions to the regulations attempts to balance these views.

Some believe that, in similar situations, where industry and activist groups criticize an action, albeit for very different reasons, the EPA action at issue must have struck the correct balance of disparate views. This breezy measure of success in an important health protection program such as this rule addresses by definition is not likely to satisfy either perspective, and complaints about the new requirements can be expected to continue, especially about the economic impact of the new requirements for some, and for others, how the occupational risks of pesticides remain too high and deserve even greater restrictions.

Outside the boundaries of the worker protection regulations, some of the underlying logic and regulation of the updated requirements indicate that EPA, at least under the current Administration, will continue its emphasis on the broader goals of environmental justice and protecting “children” from the hazards of pesticide exposure. (For example, among the most controversial elements of the changes is the prohibition on certain activities for those under the age of 18, while beforehand the cutoff age was 16; this seems partly a result of EPA’s attempt to make its policy of prohibiting testing of pesticides on children consistent with its policy of who might be exposed in occupational settings.)

The final rule will become effective 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, but agricultural employers and handler employers will not be required to comply with most of the new requirements in the final rule until 14 months after the effective date.

For more information, please see Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.’s (B&C®) memorandum Predictions and Outlook for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) 2015 and James V. Aidala Comments on EPA’s Worker Protection Standards. More information is also available on EPA’s Worker Protection Standard webpage.

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