On February 7th, the Washington State Supreme Court ordered the State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) to develop mandatory rules for medical monitoring of farm workers who handle neurotoxic pesticides. The ruling came in Rios v. Department of Labor and Industries, a suit filed in 1997 by farm workers who suffered repeated illness from handling these pesticides. The Supreme Court found that L&I's own team of technical experts had reviewed the most current research and found that the monitoring program requested by the farm workers was "both necessary and doable." It therefore ruled that L&I's refusal to adopt a monitoring program violated the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA).
The Court noted that overexposure to neurotoxic pesticides can be fatal and can result in symptoms such as respiratory distress, repetitive muscle contractions, blurred vision, cognitive difficulties, and seizures. Monitoring of the blood enzyme cholinesterase, which the farm workers sought, enables employers to identify workers who have been overexposed to these widely-used pesticides, known as organophosphates and carbamates, and remove workers from exposure before they become ill. Monitoring also helps to identify unsafe work practices. A 1995 L&I technical report cited by the Court noted that, "The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize routine blood cholinesterase monitoring as an important tool in the prevention of poisoning among workers who regularly handle these [neurotoxic] pesticides."
Juan Rios, one of the farm workers who brought the case, expressed his hope that cholinesterase monitoring will soon be a reality in Washington. "We need monitoring to know when to stop handling pesticides and avoid being poisoned. I hope the State will move forward with the program soon."
Dan Ford of Columbia Legal Services, one of the attorneys for the farm workers, stated that the decision was a common sense application of state workplace safety laws. "The Washington law that protects all workers from toxic substances applies equally to farm workers who handle highly toxic pesticides. The Court recognized that our clients are entitled to the law's protection." Todd True of Earthjustice, another attorney representing the farm workers, said "This decision is good news for anyone whose rights have been ignored by a state agency, but it is especially good news for these farm workers who have fought for adequate protection from poisoning for many years."
The workers were represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP, and Columbia Legal Services.