On July 21st, the Washington State Court of Appeals held that the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA) requires that the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) adopt medical monitoring rules to protect farmworkers who handle neurotoxic pesticides. In Rios v. Department of Labor and Industries, the Court ruled that L&I’s own investigation and rulemaking process showed that cholinesterase monitoring, a blood test that measures interference with the nervous system, is required under the law. It stated: “Because L&I’s own investigative process shows that cholinesterase monitoring is a feasible standard that can materially reduce a significant risk to worker health, L&I has a statutory duty to promulgate a standard.”
Cholinesterase monitoring enables employers to identify workers who have been overexposed to widely-used neurotoxic pesticides, known as organophosphates and carbamates, and remove them from exposure before they become ill. Monitoring also helps to identify unsafe work practices. An L&I report noted, “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.”
California has required cholinesterase monitoring since 1974. The Court of Appeals stated, “Statistics from California suggest that nearly one in four pesticide handlers have cholinesterase levels below that considered safe.”
The plaintiffs in the case are Juan Rios and Juan Farias, farmworkers who suffered repeated illness from handling pesticides. Mr. Rios 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 that the State will move forward with the program soon.”
Dan Ford of Columbia Legal Services, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, stated that the decision was a common sense application of state workplace safety laws. “The laws of this state that protect workers from toxic substances apply equally to farmworkers who handle highly toxic pesticides.” The plaintiffs were represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP, and Columbia Legal Services.