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Thanksgiving: A Time to Consider Our Food Harvesters

Today, a coalition of farmworker supporters launched a new website, protectfarmworkers.org, to generate awareness of the biggest hazards farmworkers face on the job—toxic pesticides.

As we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this week, those of us advocating for farmworkers will say thanks for the hardworking people who harvest and handle our food. When we all tuck into that turkey, let’s reflect on those who work hard in the fields, facing many dangers and often not earning enough to put food on the table themselves. That’s why Thanksgiving week is also designated as International Food Workers Week.

Farmworkers are some of the hardest-working, yet least-protected workers in our country and have one of the highest rates of chemical exposures among U.S. workers. They are exposed to pesticides throughout their workday in various ways, from mixing or applying pesticides to planting, weeding, harvesting or processing crops. In addition, farmworkers often live in or near treated fields, and harmful pesticides can drift into their homes. Health impacts can include acute poisonings and long-term, chronic health effects such as various cancers, Parkinsons’ disease, asthma, birth defects and neurological harms, including developmental delays and learning disabilities.Farmworkers’ children also are particularly at risk.

Many laws that protect almost every other worker in the U.S. do not apply to farmworkers. There is one set of standards, however, that is designed to help protect the health and safety of farmworkers from pesticide exposure: the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard for pesticides. Yet these standards are grossly inadequate for the men, women and children who are on the frontlines of our food production system; and haven’t been revised for more than 20 years despite overwhelming evidence of its failings. Thankfully, the standards have now moved to the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews rules before they are released to the public.

But while the EPA is poised to strengthen the rules protecting farmworkers, the agency needs to do so now and it needs to get it right. The EPA must issue revisions to strengthen the Worker Protection Standard before the end of the year. The new regulations should include the following key improvements:

  • A minimum age of 18 to work with pesticides. Currently teens as young as 16 may work mixing, loading and applying these highly toxic chemicals.
  • Better and more frequent training on health risks of pesticides.
  • Worker access to timely information about the use, location, and hazards of specific pesticides on the farm where they work.
  • Special protections for pesticide handlers.
  • Improved enforcement of safety standards at the state level.

A healthy, safe and fair food system would benefit us all, protecting the health and serving the economic needs of farmworkers, farmers, rural communities and consumers. Shifting away from reliance on hazardous pesticides is a key step toward this goal. But as long as harmful pesticides are in use, farmworkers need better protections in the field.

Take action, and learn more at protectfarmworkers.org.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.