Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pesticide Task Force punts on the tough issues

A Task Force convened earlier this year by Governor Mike Easley to address pesticide exposure hazards in agriculture has sent its recommendations to the Governor (read the press release). The report contains some good ideas and some welcome changes, to be sure, but misses the chance to bring much-needed basic workplace protections to farmworkers who face the threat of pesticide exposure on the job.

Within the report's recommendations you'll find budget requests for several of the agencies that were represented on the Task Force, ideas for the expansion of many voluntary and educational programs, and very little reform. Only one of the recommendations brought by farmworker advocates, a provision that would outlaw retaliation against workers who report workplace safety problems, was adopted by the Task Force.

The Task Force faced several challenges in its structure, including the absence of any farmworker representatives. Because the recommendations were made by consensus, any Task Force member was able to prevent recommendations from going forward. One Task Force member in particular, Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, was extremely effective in preventing the Task Force from taking up several of the reform measures they discussed.

There were some key issues exposed by the Ag-Mart case that the Task Force chose to put off for future study:
  • Keep workers' names confidential when they report workplace safety problems.
  • Require growers to keep records of compliance with Worker Protection Standards by recording when workers are sent back into the fields after spraying.
  • Increase minimal pesticide fines and remove the standard of "willful" violations.
Panelists also recommended solutions including: require crop-specific pesticide safety training; redesign pesticide labels and ensure that they are also provided in Spanish; encourage the use of organic farming, Integrated Pest Management and less-toxic alternatives; improve regulations of pesticide drift; require adequate showers and telephones in employer-provided farmworker housing; screen workers regularly for health impacts; increase the number of bilingual pesticide inspectors, and many others. None of these were mentioned in the final report to the Governor.

Whether Governor Easley and the NC Legislature can look beyond the limitations of this report remains to be seen. But they will have to if they intend to fix the problems that Ag-Mart has so painfully pointed out.

You can download the report (PDF, 232 KB) by clicking this link.

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