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New pesticide rules protect workers better

It’s disappointing, albeit not surprising, to see the misinformation about the recently updated Worker Protection Standard rules in a recent Mail Tribune opinion piece (“Pesticide rules won’t protect workers,” Oct. 7).

As someone who represents pesticide applicators from across the state and served on the rules advisory committee for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration rulemaking, I adamantly disagree with the assertions made by Carl Wilmsen and Lisa Arkin about the updated WPS. The Oregon WPS rules are actually more stringent than the federal standards, and offer better protection for Oregon farm and forestry workers.

In late 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a major update to the WPS, which apply to most agriculture and forestry pesticide applications. In 2016, OR-OSHA adopted most of the federal rules into state law but decided to take a closer assessment of what’s called an application exclusion zone. Under the federal rules, the exclusion zone is an area around application equipment that workers, and other people, need to stay out of during an application. As OR-OSHA, and stakeholders, reviewed that rule, there was a recognition that in certain circumstances the federal standard wouldn’t effectively work in Oregon. This precipitated a two-year rulemaking process, which resulted in the Oregon-specific rule that OR-OSHA released in July of this year.

The Oregon rule departs from the federal rule in only two places. First, it requires an exclusion zone of 150 feet when some types of pesticides are being applied aerially. This goes beyond the federal requirement for a 100-foot exclusion zone for all aerial applications, regardless of the product being used. The second change is that the Oregon rule allows for a “shelter in place” alternative. This alternative allows workers to stay in housing, offices, garages or other fully enclosed buildings during some types of applications.

This alternative is more protective of workers than the EPA rule, which requires workers to leave the exclusion zone during the application and return immediately after. It is especially critical in areas where agricultural buildings or farm housing are directly adjacent to treated areas. This is common in tree fruit orchards, where applications often occur very early in the morning, or late at night, when conditions are more favorable for reducing drift. Asking a worker and their family to leave their home during the application at these times, is burdensome without any improvement in safety.

This alternative does not mean that workers are without protection. There are notification requirements and rules that require the building to be fully enclosed. Workers are also given the option to remain indoors, or to leave the exclusion zone. The choice is up to them on how they feel the most protected.

Under ORS 634, off-target pesticide drift is already illegal. The Oregon Department of Agriculture routinely responds to complaints and issues civil penalties when violations have occurred. In addition, the new Oregon rule contains strict requirements for minimizing drift to a shelter, providing further protection for occupants.

While there are many accusations of drift, three years of Agriculture Department pesticide investigation records confirm that allegations of off-target drift onto farmworker housing are infrequent, and that confirmed violations are extremely rare. With thousands of applications occurring each year, there was only one confirmed case of drift onto farmworker housing in the past three years.

We all want workers who operate around pesticides to be safe. As agricultural employers, farmers depend on their employees as partners. One of the more unfortunate outcomes of the rulemaking process was the attempt by some to pit farmworkers and farmers against each other, and it appears that some groups are continuing to do just that. Most Oregon farmers see their workers as close friends, if not family, who help make their operations successful and would never unnecessarily endanger their health. The OR-OSHA rules, in conjunction with our already strict pesticide regulations, help ensure that continues to be the case.

Scott Dahlman is the policy director for Oregonians for Food & Shelter, a pesticide trade group. He served on the OR-OSHA WPS rulemaking advisory committee as well as the fiscal impact committee.

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