Farmworker protection agency misrepresented

  “Harvesting Poison,” (HCN, 9/29/03: Harvesting Poison) failed to mention or accurately report the efforts of the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. WSDA places a high priority on farmworker protection. For more than a decade, WSDA’s Farmworker Education Program has provided Spanish-language pesticide safety training to agricultural workers and pesticide handlers, as well as pre-licensing and continuing education training to farmworkers who need a license to apply pesticides.

Recent efforts by WSDA have increased the number of Spanish-language pesticide training programs offered, developed a more diverse group of Spanish-language trainers, and implemented an effective hands-on training that uses volunteer bilingual trainers. Last winter, WSDA began offering Train-the-Trainer programs to help foremen and farm owners better understand their responsibilities for protecting farmworkers and to help them deliver more effective employee training. Through all of these efforts, the Farmworker Education Program has trained more than 15,000 Hispanic applicators, handlers and workers.

We’re also about enforcement. WSDA’s pesticide program has five (not one, as the article stated) bilingual staff — three directly involved in the WSDA Farmworker Education Program and two investigators. One of our bilingual trainers also conducts inspections to ensure compliance with the state and federal Worker Protection Standard (WPS). In 2002, WSDA conducted 36 unannounced WPS inspections in which employers were checked for compliance with WPS and agricultural employees were interviewed — away from their employers — to measure the effectiveness of training and their knowledge of the standards. One 2002 case involving WPS violations resulted in a fine of $1,700 and a 24-day pesticide license suspension.

Our state departments of Health and Labor & Industries (L&I;) are important partners in farmworker protection efforts. WSDA and L&I; jointly enforce the Worker Protection Standard. The Department of Health educates doctors, growers and farmworkers about ways to recognize and protect against pesticide exposure. When WSDA receives a human exposure pesticide complaint, it is mandated to respond within 24 hours and, in 2002, did so in 100 percent of the cases reported.

WSDA works continuously to provide information on WPS to growers and others. Our annual newsletter, Pesticides Notes, which reaches over 24,000 pesticide-license holders, about half of which are growers and their employees, focuses on high-priority issues, including farmworker safety and pesticide security. Bilingual staff regularly participate in Spanish-language radio programs on pesticide safety issues. WSDA interacts extensively with other agencies, advocacy groups and the agricultural community in providing its expertise for cooperative extension classes, ongoing pesticide research, and community education projects. HCN’s article did not present an accurate picture of the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s efforts to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. To us, farmworkers are not “second-class citizens.” They are a top priority.

Bob Arrington
Assistant Director,
Pesticide Management Division
Washington State Department of Agriculture
Olympia, Washington