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Case Study: Agricultural Workers Need Better Protections

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[Editor’s note: Why are the revisions to the Worker Protection Standard important? As clinicians, we recognize that simple, common-sense, and science-backed regulations can make a profound difference in the health of agricultural workers, a vulnerable and often exploited class of workers. The following is a case study illustrating how agricultural workers can often be at risk of exposure and may be in the dark about regulations. The newly implemented features of the revised WPS, if properly followed, will prevent this situation in the future.]

In 2015, a crew of 22 seasonal agricultural workers was working on a tobacco farm in a Southern US state.* All of the workers were Mexican nationals brought to the farm as a part of the H-2A temporary visa program. The workers were instructed by their supervisor to re-enter and begin work in a recently sprayed tobacco field before the restricted entry interval (REI) had expired. The field did not have warning signs posted alerting workers of the recent application, and the supervisor refrained from informing them about the REI.

Within an hour, 12 out of 22 workers were unable to continue working due to illness as a result of pesticide exposure. Symptoms included nausea, headache, dizziness, stomach pain, muscle cramping, difficulty breathing, and extreme perspiration. The workers had not received any pesticide safety training. They were largely unaware of their rights, including their right to medical attention.

Because they were unable to continue working, the crew members alerted their supervisor and requested him to transport them to a nearby hospital. The supervisor denied the request.

The ill workers who did not return to work immediately were sent home to Mexico at their own expense and without medical attention.

Miguel, one of the ill workers who was sent home to Mexico, contacted a legal aid organization in the state where the tobacco farm was located. Miguel lived in a rural Mexican village and did not have a home telephone, fax machine, email address, or viable mailing address. Miguel did not have a treating physician and needed assistance with location, coordination with, and transportation to a medical specialist in a different part of Mexico to determine diagnosis and an appropriate course of treatment. His attorney requested from Miguel’s employer a list of pesticides that had been applied to the fields in which he worked during the time that he became ill. The employer refused to provide this information for weeks, thereby impeding Miguel’s diagnosis and treatment.

This case underscores important aspects of the support workers need to protect them from pesticide exposure. For clinicians, treatment of pesticide exposure can be challenging, and prevention is critical. Under the new, stronger WPS, many pesticide poisonings will be prevented. Several new prevention measures in particular may prevent such a case from occurring again: While safety training has always been obligatory, it is now required every year as opposed to the previous every five years. Workers must be trained before they start work; there is no longer a grace period for training. Additionally, workers must be notified about REIs and a sign must be posted if the REI is greater than 48 hours for outdoor applications and four hours for indoor applications. When exposed to pesticides, workers under the stronger WPS are allowed to designate a third party representative to obtain information about the exposure. The employer may no longer refuse such a request. This is an important piece of the new WPS since workers often encounter barriers to accessing this information, including language difference and fear of job loss.

*Names, dates, and other identifying information have been changed to protect the identity of the workers.

 

MCN Streamline Fall 2016

 

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