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Agricultural Workers, Pesticides and Employer Liability

Agricultural workers are frequently exposed to pesticides in their work environments. Given the potentially life-threatening side effects of exposure to such chemicals, employers may limit liability by taking measures to protect workers from the harmful toxins used in crop production.

Federal and State Regulation

The Worker Protection Standard (WPS), promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), protects agricultural workers from the risks associated with agricultural pesticides. Generally, the WPS requires that employers provide employees with decontamination sites for washing off pesticide residues, designates the proper location of such sites, and specifies that certain materials (water, soap and disposable towels) be made available to the employees.

The Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) has set worker decontamination requirements that are similar to those issued by the EPA. OSHA requires agricultural employers with more than 10 employees to provide hand-washing facilities, including potable water, when workers utilize hand labor for crop production. Several states, including California, Washington and Oregon, have requirements that are similar or stricter to OSHA’s. However, the majority of states do not have requirements similar to OSHA’s.

Quantifying Worker Exposure

Pesticide exposure depends upon several variables, including the quantity of pesticide handled, environmental conditions, and the duration and frequency of exposure. In order to ensure exposure-specific safeguards, it is necessary for employers to quantify worker exposure.

Two approaches exist to estimate pesticide exposure in relation to specific work tasks:

  1. Dosimetry: Involves placing patches on the worker’s body to trap toxic residues. The patches are then analyzed to determine the amount of toxin the worker has been exposed to. The dosimetry method also uses rinses and wipes to measure pesticide residues on the hands, face and neck, and personal air samplers to measure chemical exposure within a worker’s breathing zone.
  2. Biological Monitoring Studies: Technicians analyze and sample a worker’s urine, blood and/or exhalation to estimate pesticide exposure.

Once occupational exposure information is gathered, an employer can assess a worker’s risk by considering a particular pesticide’s level of toxicity. Because toxicity levels remain constant regardless of the manner in which the pesticide is used, the only way to reduce the risk of harm is to reduce the worker’s exposure to the chemicals. Employers should encourage their employees to follow product label directions, use protective clothing and equipment, and practice safe hygiene procedures.

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