Northwest Public Radio

December 13, 2017


Farmworker Advocates Say New Pesticide Rules Not Strong Enough


By Jes Burns

Oregon has more than 300 registered farmworker camps. They provide housing for the people who pick our berries, cherries and beets. The camps are located on the farms themselves - sometimes just a few yards away from fields and orchards that are sprayed with pesticides.

Oregon’s workplace safety agency is considering new rules to protect farmworkers, and it’s stirring up questions about what “safe” means when you’re talking about chemicals designed to kill.

Dagoberto Morales’ car winds along the rural backroads of the Rogue Valley. Winter is coming and the pear orchards stand stark and skeletal. Morales used to work these orchards and lived in the housing right next to them.

“We used to play futbol in here,” Morales said, pointing to an open area near a group of houses.

Morales now volunteers with a group called Unete, which provides information, support and advocacy for the mostly-Latino farm labor in Southern Oregon.

Right now, they’re focusing their attention on proposed state rules that will affect workers and families that rely on more than 300 registered farm camps for housing.

Near the town of Talent, the small farm bunk-houses are visible from the road. Morales slows down near one that has the feel of a run-down hotel in an old West town.

Most of the windows have a thin layer of plastic over the outside.

“You have the plastic around them because the air is coming through and they want to get warm for the winter,” he says. “When they spray (the orchards), they spray the house. (The workers) can smell that.”

Northwest states are beginning to consider alternatives to new federal rules that increased pesticide protections for farmworkers.

Michael Wood is head of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration – or OSHA.

“This is a situation where we're talking about a risk of drift," Wood said, "which should not occur and if it does occur, it's already of violation. But we recognize it might occur. In fact, we recognize that in all likelihood at times it will occur.”

The federal rule requires that workers stay at least 100 feet away from a pesticide applicator while spraying is happening. But the feds missed something.

“It’s very clear," Wood said. "They hadn’t even thought about housing.”

Wood says growers asked for an alternative to the 100-foot evacuation buffer– especially since a lot of the spraying happens in the calm early morning hours.

Mike Doke is director of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers.

“We believe it’s safer for them to remain indoors with windows closed, rather than try to wake people up in the middle of the night, go outside and then come back to an area that's just been sprayed to go back inside their house,” Doke said.

This “shelter-in-place” option is being proposed for most of the pesticides used. Doke says this is less burdensome for growers and workers. The proposed rule also says pesticides that pose a respiratory risk are subject to more stringent evacuation guidelines, which the Fruit Growers are opposing.

Worker advocates say drafty farm-labor housing doesn’t provide enough protection. They want a 300-foot spray buffer for worker housing.

About 30 people rallied before a recent public hearing in Medford. Inside, University of Oregon student Lupe Partida rattled her notes as she told regulators that the proposal isn’t good enough.

“Farm workers are left with no choice but to live in these circumstances,” said Partida.

It’s Oregon OSHA’s responsibility to ensure the safety of farmworker housing. Over the past three years, about half the work camps in Oregon have been inspected – with nearly 350 citations issued. About 10 percent of those concerned the soundness of roof, walls, windows and doors.

Oregon OSHA’s Michael Wood says worker housing is often intentionally designed to provide ventilation. Still, he maintains the risk of pesticide exposure from even these vents is minimal.

“And the likelihood that any significant amount of chemical would travel up under the eaves and then down till actually land on a workers exposed arm or body part, is really very low,” Wood said.

And this is the kind of calculus Wood will have to consider when he makes a final decision on the proposed rules early next year.