EPA Proposes Rule to Protect Farmworkers and Pesticide Handlers from Exposures

February 20, 2023
The EPA recently announced a proposed rule that would improve and modernize the pesticide Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ) requirements under the 2015 Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS), reaffirming the Agency’s commitment to protecting farmworkers, pesticide handlers, their families, and agricultural communities from pesticide exposure during National Pesticide Safety Education Month.
“EPA’s top priority is to protect public health and the environment, and today’s proposal is a significant step forward to further protect the farmworkers, farmers and pesticide handlers who deliver the fuel, fiber and food that runs America,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Farmworker justice is environmental justice, and we’re continuing to take action to make sure these communities are protected equally under the law from pesticide exposure.”
Application Exclusion Zone
The Worker Protection Standard regulations offer protections to over two million agricultural workers and pesticide handlers who work at over 600,000 agricultural establishments. In 2015, EPA made significant changes to the standard to decrease pesticide exposure among farmworkers and their family members. Less pesticide exposure means a healthier workforce and fewer lost wages, medical bills and absences from work.
Among the changes, the revised standard included a new provision requiring agricultural employers to keep workers and all other individuals out of an area called the AEZ during outdoor pesticide applications. The AEZ is the area surrounding an ongoing pesticide application that people must not enter to avoid exposure. An AEZ moves with the equipment during applications to protect farmworkers and bystanders that could be contacted by pesticides.
In 2020, the previous administration published a rule specific to the AEZ requirements, limiting the applicability of the protections to the agricultural employer’s property and shrinking the AEZ size from 100 feet to 25 feet for some ground-based spray applications. Prior to the effective date of the 2020 AEZ Rule, petitions were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and in the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the 2020 Rule (now consolidated as case number 20 Civ. 10642). The SDNY issued an order granting the petitioners’ request for a temporary restraining order. As a result, the 2020 AEZ Rule has not gone into effect, and the AEZ provisions in the 2015 WPS remain in effect.
Through its review, EPA has determined that the provisions in the 2020 AEZ Rule that weakened protections for farmworkers and nearby communities from pesticide exposure should be rescinded to protect the health of farmworkers, their families, and nearby communities.
Proposed Changes and Flexibilities
The Agency is proposing to reinstate several provisions from the 2015 WPS to strengthen protections for farmworkers and bystanders including:
  • Applying the AEZ
    • beyond an establishment’s boundaries; and
    • when individuals are within easements (such as easement for utility workers to access telephone lines).
  •  Establishing AEZ distances for ground-based spray applications of
    • 25 feet for medium or larger sprays when sprayed from a height greater than 12 inches from the soil surface or planting medium; and
    • 100 feet for fine sprays.
Additionally, EPA is proposing to retain two provisions in the 2020 AEZ Rule that the Agency believes are consistent with the intent of the 2015 WPS AEZ requirements and are supported by information available to the Agency to provide more clarity and flexibility for farming families. EPA proposes to retain:
  • A clarification that suspended pesticide applications can resume after people leave the AEZ; and,
  • an “immediate family exemption” that allows only farm owners and the farm owners’ immediate family to remain inside enclosed structures or homes while pesticide applications are made, providing family members flexibility to decide whether to stay on-site during pesticide applications, rather than compelling them to leave even when they feel safe remaining in their own homes.
The proposed changes are a critical part of EPA’s efforts to protect the health of farmworkers and support the Agency’s priority to advance equity and justice for all communities. Learn more about EPA’s extensive efforts to train, support and enhance safe working conditions for agricultural workers at local, state, and national levels on EPA’s website.
Upon publication of the federal register notice, the proposed rule will be available for public comment for 60 days in docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2022-0133 at www.regulations.gov.
OSHA Seeks Public Comment on Modernizing Its Voluntary Protection Program
OSHA is inviting the public and workplace safety stakeholders to share their comments on how the agency can best honor companies who make exceptional commitments to workplace safety and health, and encourage others to follow.
Established in 1982, OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program recognizes workplaces that demonstrate best practices in safety and health management and serve as industry models. In the last 40 years, the program has attracted a wide variety of organizations in many industries. VPP's success has stretched OSHA resources and made it more difficult to ensure the quality of program applicants' safety and health management systems.
By opening the program to public comments, OSHA seek input from all perspectives to assist the agency as it modernizes and enhances the VPP, and continues to promote the use of workplace safety and health management systems. The Voluntary Protection Program's modernization project is seeking stakeholder input on issues such as:
  • Aligning the program more closely with recent occupational safety and health management practices and system standards
  • How the program can contribute to expanding the use and effectiveness of safety and health management systems
  • Whether and how resources and tools such as “special government employees,” consensus standards, third-party auditors and other methods could serve to expand the program's capacity without compromising effectiveness and oversight
  • Whether particular categories of hazards need special attention in the VPP certification process
OSHA is asking a series of questions in 10 sections to elicit useful responses to support the project's aims. Interested members of the public should submit comments and attachments, identified by Docket No. OSHA-2022-0012, using the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. The deadline for comments is April 14, 2023.
Environmental Advocates Call for State of Emergency in Ohio Chemical Disaster
A major environmental disaster unfolding in East Palestine, Ohio has prompted environmental organizations to call on Gov. Mike DeWine to declare a state of emergency after a train carrying hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals derailed and exploded, contaminating nearby waterways, soil, and the air residents are breathing. Norfolk Southern Railroad burned several cars of chemicals to avoid further explosions.
The impact of the Feb. 3 toxic chemical explosions on people’s health is yet unknown, but residents have reported experiencing nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches. It has also been confirmed that the hazardous chemicals have spilled into the Ohio River, which covers 14 states and provides drinking water to more than 5 million people. The state confirmed the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of at least 3,500 fish. It is critical that Gov. DeWine declare a state of emergency and formally request President Joe Biden for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid so that residents affected by the explosion can get immediate help.
“When important source waters like this are contaminated by spills caused by corporate greed and lack of protective regulations, the impacts reverberate downstream and harm communities for years — we have seen it time and time again,” said Earthjustice Legislative Counsel Julian Gonzalez. “Governor DeWine, Environmental Protection Agency, and FEMA need to listen to the people impacted most by this, like Fresh Water Future, Project BREATHE, Save Our County, and River Valley Organizing, and immediately explore emergency options to mitigate the damage caused by this preventable disaster.”
Following the explosions, state officials ordered residents living within a mile of the explosions to evacuate immediately, said River Valley Organizing Development Director Emily Wright, who lives a few miles from the disaster site. Many East Palestine community members sheltered in a local high school as they had nowhere else to go. Residents in other areas in Ohio surrounding the site and in Beaver County, Pennsylvania were also told to evacuate.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the water, air, and soil surrounding the disaster site have been contaminated by hazardous and carcinogenic petrochemical derivatives used in factories to make paint, adhesives, plastics, and more. Despite the EPA’s greenlight for residents to return home a week after the explosions, the agency cannot say what kind of health impact this amount of exposure to these hazardous chemicals will have on people.
Petrochemicals are toxic chemicals derived from oil and gas that are used to make a variety of substances. As the U.S. shifts to clean energy, fossil fuel companies are turning to petrochemicals to protect their profits. EPA must adopt stronger protections from these chemicals across their life cycles — including how they are transported — to protect against chemical disasters, as well as the everyday exposures, that are poisoning communities.
In 2018, the federal agencies charged with regulating hazardous materials on trains actually removed safety rules requiring modern braking systems. But they failed to conduct mandated safety tests, used inaccurately low estimates of accidents and risks, and restricted public participation. Earthjustice appealed the rule, but the agencies failed to respond, siding with companies like Norfolk Southern, who lobbied against more stringent safety requirements. The lack of government response has meant more explosive tank cars with “Civil War-era braking systems” traveling through towns and neighborhoods.
“The Norfolk Southern disaster unfolding in East Palestine demonstrates the lengths to which the petrochemical industry and its underregulated toxic emissions needlessly put communities in harm’s way,” said Adam Kron, senior attorney with Earthjustice. “While we still don’t know the full extent of human exposure and health effects from this derailment, it is an urgent call to action for EPA and other federal agencies to undo Trump-era rollbacks and strengthen rules that protect communities from petrochemical facilities’ toxic emissions.”
EPA Announces Initial Program Design of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund
The EPA recently announced initial guidance on the design of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) program, created by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. EPA published two Federal Assistance Listings outlining key parameters of the grant competitions that will ultimately award nearly $27 billion to leverage private capital for clean energy and clean air investments across the country. Federal Assistance Listings are the first public notice requirement to implement a federal grant program.
The initial program design guidance follows a robust stakeholder engagement effort with input collected from state, local and Tribal governments, community financing institutions, environmental justice organizations, industry groups and labor and environmental finance experts.
“Thanks to President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will unlock historic investments to combat the climate crisis and deliver results for the American people, especially those who have too often been left behind. The initial program design announced today will ensure the fund fulfills its mandate to deliver benefits to all in a transparent and inclusive fashion,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “With $27 billion from President Biden’s investments in America, this program will mobilize billions more in private capital to reduce pollution and improve public health, all while lowering energy costs, increasing energy security, creating good-paying jobs and boosting economic prosperity in communities across the country.”
EPA will hold two competitions to distribute grant funding under the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund: a $20 billion General and Low-Income Assistance Competition and a $7 billion Zero-Emissions Technology Fund Competition. EPA will implement these programs in alignment with President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which directs that 40% of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities, including those facing disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental impacts. EPA expects to open competitions for funding under the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund by summer 2023.
EPA also announced a national Community Roundtable series to continue a robust and inclusive engagement effort, focused on introducing the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to communities across the country and learning about community-level solutions that the Fund can support.
“When we delivered the Inflation Reduction Act last year, we promised the largest investment in climate and clean energy ever made in our history, all while reducing energy bills and bringing good jobs to all communities across America. Now, less than a year later, the American people are seeing us follow through on that promise to improve the lives of families across the country,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “A giant leap forward for bringing clean energy to communities who are too often left behind, the Green House Gas Reduction Fund is one of the concrete actions taken as a direct result of the Inflation Reduction Act to make access to reliable and clean solar power easier for millions of Americans. By investing in renewable energy, we’re revitalizing communities, creating jobs of the future, and delivering real help for the American people.”
EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will include a nearly $20 billion General and Low-Income Assistance Competition to award competitive grants to eligible nonprofit entities that will collaborate with community financing institutions like green banks, community development financial institutions, credit unions, housing finance agencies and others. Together, these entities will leverage public dollars with private capital to invest in projects that reduce pollution and lower energy costs for families, particularly those in the low-income and disadvantaged communities that have had unequal access to private capital for far too long. Awardees will also facilitate technical assistance and capacity building to strengthen the community-based organizations, small businesses, workers, and suppliers required to accelerate the transition to an equitable net-zero economy and catalyze the jobs of the future. EPA expects to make between 2 and 15 grants under this competition.
Under the $7 billion Zero-Emissions Technology Fund Competition, EPA will award competitive grants to states, Tribes, municipalities, and eligible nonprofit entities to enable the deployment of residential rooftop solar, community solar and associated storage and upgrades in low-income and disadvantaged communities. This competition will ensure all families benefit from clean, affordable energy options. EPA expects to award up to 60 grants under this competition.
EPA is moving expeditiously to develop these two grant competitions, utilizing the established technical expertise of agency officials in EPA and across the US government, to invest public funding transparently and inclusively and deliver significant investments in the American people. EPA expects to release Notice of Funding Opportunities for these competitions in early summer 2023.
Stakeholder Engagement
EPA initiated the program design process last October with a call for public input that resulted in nearly 400 detailed responses, hundreds of attendees at two public townhalls delivering over four hours of public comments, nearly two dozen targeted stakeholder meetings with state, local and Tribal governments, community financing institutions, environmental justice organizations, industry groups, labor organizations, and environmental finance experts.
Stakeholders submitted thousands of pages of comments during the process with diverse perspectives on how to implement the program. Records of the responses EPA received during the stakeholder engagement process can be viewed in the docket at regulations.gov. EPA will continue to assess feedback received by stakeholders to inform the design of the grant competitions.
European Commission Proposes Lower OEL for Lead
The European Commission has proposed to lower the European Union’s occupational exposure limit for lead from 0.15 mg/m3 to 0.03 mg/m3 as an 8-hour time-weighted average. The commission also proposes to lower the biological limit value (BLV) for lead from 70 micrograms per 100 milliliters of blood (70 µg/100 ml) to 15 µg/100 ml. The current OEL and BLV have not been updated since 1982, when they were first adopted under a directive on lead. According to the commission, “a significantly reduced exposure limit” for lead will help prevent health issues among workers, including those that affect reproduction and fetal development. For comparison, U.S. OSHA’s permissible exposure limit and NIOSH’s recommended exposure limit for lead are both 50 µg/m3 as an 8-hour TWA.
According to the impact assessment (PDF) accompanying the proposal, approximately 50,000 to 150,000 workers are exposed to lead in the EU. Workers engaged in the production of lead, batteries, lead sheets, ammunition, lead oxides, and frits are exposed to lead. Other exposed workers may include those who work in foundries and in the production of articles of alloys with lead as well as those who produce and use pigments for paint and plastics. Exposures can also occur further downstream in the product chain, the commission explains. For example, workers in demolition, repair, and scrap management as well as those in waste management and soil remediation are also at risk of exposure to lead.
The European Commission is also proposing the first exposure limits at the EU level for diisocyanates, which the commission describes as “various chemicals that are often grouped based on their common properties, and which can cause respiratory diseases like asthma.” An estimated 4.2 million workers in the EU are exposed to these chemicals. For the nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen group of diisocyanates, the commission proposes an OEL of 6 µg/m³ as an 8-hour TWA and a 15-minute short-term exposure limit of 12 µg/m³. To alert employers and workers of potential exposures via routes other than inhalation, the commission is also proposing a dermal and respiratory sensitization notation as well as a skin notation for these chemicals.
A news release issued by the European Commission describes its proposed changes as “key to protect workers in the context of advancing the transition to climate neutrality.”
“Both lead and diisocyanates are likely to be used, for example, in the production of batteries and in processes to make electric vehicles lighter, in wind turbines or as insulating materials during building renovations,” the commission states.
For further details, see the European Commission news release. Links to download related documents can be found near the bottom of the release.
Safety Violations in Fatal Trench Collapse Result in Major Fine
A Kent contractor is facing more than $400,000 in fines for safety violations that led to the death of a construction worker last September in Renton. Surjit Gill, 36, was killed when the dirt walls of the trench he was working in collapsed and buried him.
The Washington state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has cited AAA Contractors Inc. for three willful and one serious violation in connection with the incident. The company was also cited for several general violations. The fines total $437,581.00.
L&I inspectors determined Gill had been working in a trench 18-20 feet deep at a new housing development. No one had inspected the trench for safety before the worker entered, and the shields installed were inadequate for the soil type and depth. Employees inside the trench also did not have a safe way of getting out.
“One cubic yard of soil can weigh more than a car,” said Craig Blackwood, assistant director for L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “Dirt walls can collapse suddenly and without any warning. That’s why there are safety rules in place. The requirements are well known by employers in the industry, and effective when followed. Mr. Gill should still be alive today.”
Excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction jobs, and the danger is growing. Excavation incidents killed 35 workers across the U.S. in 2022 — more than double the 15 workers killed in 2021.
Blackwood said when L&I inspectors arrived at the Renton site, they found the trench box designed to hold back the soil was four feet shorter than the top of the trench. Another trench box was found on site, not being used. Inspectors said if AAA Contractors had stacked that box on top of the other one, the cave-in might have been prevented.
They also found two ladder sections had been tied together with rope, which is not permitted, and still did not make the ladder tall enough to extend the required three feet above the trench. Also, the ladder side rails and rungs were damaged, and it should not have been used.
Along with the willful and serious violations, AAA was also cited for several general violations including not having a first-aid certified person on site, the supervisor or person in charge was not first aid certified, and there were no documented walk around safety inspections.
AAA Contractors has been identified as a severe violator and is now subject to greater scrutiny. The company has filed an appeal.
Visit L&I’s Trenching & Excavation topic page to learn more about trenching safety.
Federal Investigation Finds Toolmaker Failed to Properly Protect Drill Press Operators
In less than two years, three workers at a leading tool manufacturer in Barberton suffered injuries from unguarded machinery.
The latest injury occurred on Oct. 26, 2022, when a worker suffered a left thumb amputation while hand-feeding parts into a drill press using air-activated clamps. The worker had been on the job for just three months. In December 2020 and June 2022, two other workers performing similar tasks suffered laceration injuries.
Responding to the employer report of the amputation, investigators with OSHA cited Wright Tool for one willful violation of machine guarding standards, as well as two serious and one other-than-serious violations. The company faces proposed penalties of $164,742. Employers are required to report amputations to OSHA within 24 hours.
"Wright Tool was aware of the need to improve their guarding but failed to do so," explained OSHA Area Director Howard Eberts in Cleveland. "Without proper guards and safety procedures in place, moving machine parts can cause severe workplace injuries. Employers have a legal responsibility to protect workers from hazards and train them on how to do the job safely."
OSHA found the company also failed to conduct hazard assessments to identify personal protective equipment needs and other requirements, did not test energy control procedures at least annually or train each employee to ensure they understood hazardous energy control procedures, and failed to enclose shafting.
Since 1927, Wright Tool Company has forged wrenches, ratchets, sockets and attachments with distribution to the automotive, hardware and industrial markets.
Groups Call on EPA to Ban Plastic Fluorination that Creates PFAS
The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) responded to nine significant new use notices (SNUNs) filed by Inhance Technologies by calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the process that creates per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) during the “fluorination” of tens of millions of plastic containers and bottles. PFAS from these fluorinated containers leach into the container contents, putting workers, consumers and communities across the U.S. at risk of unsafe exposure to these harmful substances.
In a letter released recently to Dr. Michal Freedhoff, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, the groups emphasize that the Inhance SNUNs present a critical test of whether EPA will adhere to its commitment to stop the buildup of PFAS in humans and the environment by preventing new sources of exposure and release.
The SNUNs were filed in December 2022, two years after it was discovered that Inhance had been producing numerous PFAS in violation of EPA’s 2020 Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). These PFAS include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which was phased out by major producers in 2015 because of the combination of pervasive exposure and serious adverse health effects at near-zero concentrations.
The letter to Dr. Freedhoff also expresses concern that the public has been shut out of the review of the SNUNs as a result of Inhance’s overreaching claims of confidentiality for extensive health and safety data included in their submissions. The letter demands that EPA immediately disclose this data, which, under TSCA, cannot be legally withheld from the public so that public health groups can meaningfully comment on the SNUNs.
Inhance submitted the SNUNs only after being notified by CEH and PEER that they intended to sue the company for producing long-chain PFAS subject to the 2020 SNUR without notifying and receiving approval from EPA, as required by TSCA. Inhance has continued its unlawful manufacturing and processing activities during the EPA SNUN review process. Separate suits have been filed by PEER and CEH and by EPA to stop Inhance’s unlawful conduct pending EPA’s review of the SNUNs and determinations of safety under section 5 of TSCA.
For two years, EPA has known that Inhance is violating the Agency’s July 2020 SNUR for certain long-chain PFAS under TSCA. Yet EPA did not file suit against Inhance until PEER and CEH threatened legal action and has still not informed the public of the serious public health concerns presented by use of fluorinated containers.
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