A critical shortage of protective gear risks endangering tens of thousands of farm workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, public health advocates told the EPA Wednesday.
Just as health care workers need personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them from viruses and diseases, many agricultural workers rely on the same kind of masks, gloves, and respirators to protect themselves from toxic chemicals and pesticides.
Of primary concern to farmworker groups was whether the Environmental Protection Agency is moving fast enough to address the risks agricultural workers face, both from exposure to pesticides and heightened exposure to Covid-19 in the summer harvest season.
“We’re getting worried because we’ve already had workers that have died, not just gotten infected, but have died,” Mily Trevino-Sauceda, the executive director of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, said during a virtual meeting of the EPA’s Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee, a panel of state, environmental, public health, and industry representatives.
Trevino-Sauceda’s group, based in California, works to provide environmental and economic justice for migratory farm workers.
Rick Keigwin, director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, said the agency has started to hear about potential shortages personal protective equipment in the agricultural sector.
“We’ve begun to explore how we might address those shortages of PPE and how they intersect with pesticide labels,” he said at the meeting.
Trevino-Sauceda asked Keigwin whether EPA was committed to conducting enforcement and monitoring not only for field sanitation issues but also to ensure employers were taking necessary social-distancing precautions.
To address the risks posed by a looming PPE shortage, Keigwin said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is considering ways to increase supplies by waiving certain domestic certification requirements for PPE that have been certified in other countries that meet, or is similar to certification protocols established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The Pesticide Program Dialog Committee also asked Keigwin whether EPA was looking at ways to insure that pesticide training programs for certified applicators can be conducted amid ongoing stay-at-home orders and shutdowns.
“This public health crisis has coincided with the regular seasonal increase in pest pressure,” said Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association based in Fairfax, Va.
“It also happens to coincide with our seasonal hiring phases, and what we’re finding is that many testing centers are still closed,” he said.
Call for Reciprocity
Fredericks said he hoped the EPA would consider creating remote training programs and allow pesticide applicators who are certified in one state to be able to work across state lines.
The issue of reciprocity was a major concern for crop dusting companies, which often travel farther to service their spray contracts with farmers.
“We’re finding ourselves in a situation where there’s a need or a commercial pesticide applicators, particularly aerial applicators, that was not anticipated,” said Damon Reabe, co-owner of Dairyland Aviation and Reabe Spraying Business, based in Wisconsin.
Reabe said pesticide applicators may not be able to get certified in non-reciprocal states if tests aren’t being issued.
“So I would just ask that the EPA move very quickly at communicating with state lead agencies about the importance of developing the immediate flexibility in that subject area,” he said at the meeting.
Others reiterated that states are keenly aware of the need to develop solutions for pesticide testing challenges.
“There are some states that have literally gone to allowing prospective applicators to take the test in their vehicles in parking lots,” said Liza Fleeson Trossbach, director of the American Association of Pesticide Control Officials.
Some states have been able to or waive certain requirements in emergency situations, or conduct socially-distant testing or move testing programs online—but it’s not always that simple, Fleeson Trossbach said.
“We have to remember that many states and territories also have laws and regulations that may specifically prohibit changes to current testing systems,” she said.
Fleeson Trossbach noted that states must submit testing certification plans to the EPA for approval.
“And so changes would require amendments to those plans, which also just adds to the complexity,” she said.
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