Feb 16, 2023EPA proposes rule to protect farmworkers and pesticide handlers from exposures
Tthe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Feb. 16 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
With the action, 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.