Originally published Food Safety News

Farmworkers exposed to agricultural pesticides need additional information on how to protect themselves, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Since 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had a Worker Protection Standard (WPS) for agriculture that permits farmworkers to identify someone who can request a farm’s pesticide information for their benefit.   

In a new 34-page report to Congress, GAO addresses how the so-called “designated representative” provision is being used or misused. The  standard covers more than 2 million farmworkers at more than 600,000 farms, according to the EPA.

Steve Morris, director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment shop, says farmworkers need information about pesticide exposure illnesses. Faster diagnoses and better treatments require it.

Morris says the GAO report also addresses the charge that “designated representatives” are collecting farm pesticide information to gain a competitive advantage.

“The EPA, state officials, and others told us they don’t know of any instances of misused information, ” Morris said. “But, EPA guidance doesn’t outline how pesticide information should be used.”

Farmers use pesticides to protect their crops against pests and weeds. Pesticides increase productivity, but pesticide use poses a risk to human health.  

The GAO report makes two recommendations for improving the system, including:

Recommendation 1: The Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance should coordinate with states to collect information on the use of the designated representative, either through its annual cooperative agreement work plans with states or another mechanism. 

The collection of information on use could include consistently compiling the information obtained through inspections across states—specifically, whether farmworkers are using designated representatives and whether farmers are providing the information to the designated representatives within the time frames required by the WPS. 

Agency affected: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Recommendation 2: The director for EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs should, in the agency’s guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, explain EPA’s expectations about the appropriate use of the pesticide information obtained by a designated representative, including describing potential misuse of such information. 

Agency affected: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs.

The GAO also consulted with stakeholder groups representing both farmers and farmworkers, as well as state agencies that regulate agricultural pesticides.  From those organizations, it collected  “a range of suggestions about how EPA and states could address potential misuse of information obtained through the designated representative provision. “For example, stakeholders and officials from state agencies that monitor compliance with the WPS suggested the following:

  • Prohibiting sharing of information for purposes other than a farmworker’s health and safety or worker’s compensation claims.
  • Including an enforceable financial penalty against designated representatives who share the information they obtain for purposes not intended by the rule.
  • Limiting the number of farmworkers that a designated representative can represent to prevent anti-pesticide groups from filing class-action lawsuits against a farm.
  • Including additional safeguards to verify that the designated representative is “bona fide’ and is collecting information only for the purpose of supporting the farmworker’s legitimate purpose.
  • Developing a legally binding agreement between the farmer and the farmworker’s designated representative to ensure that there is an understanding that the information provided will be used for a medical purpose or for a worker’s compensation claim.