Since the Worker Protection Standard became law in 1992, this federal program has moved through various phases of federal and state implementation, including (1) education/compliance assistance, (2) product labeling inspection, and (3) employer compliance inspections. Because of the relatively long time spent focusing on education/compliance assistance, you may have been led to believe that the WPS is not being enforced and that the law has no "teeth." Enforcement actions taken and comments made last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should dispel these myths.
The EPA issued administrative complaints against five Colorado growers on June 3, 2003, for violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act's (FIFRA's) Worker Protection Standard (WPS), a regulation aimed at reducing the risk of pesticide poisonings and injuries among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. In one case, EPA is proposing a civil penalty of $231,990 for 229 violations of the WPS and FIFRA. This is the largest proposed federal WPS misuse penalty in EPA history.
"Environmental justice is one of the highest priorities for EPA's enforcement program, and this Agency will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure agricultural workers and pesticide handlers are protected from harmful exposure to pesticides," said John Peter Suarez, EPA Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "The federal government will not tolerate growers who place their workers in harm's way because they fail to comply with the law." (For the complete article, see U.S. EPA at http://cfpub.epa.gov/compliance/newsroom/, released 6/5/03.)
WPS Assistance in Illinois
In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Agriculture has been conducting WPS-specific compliance inspections for several years. What has University of Illinois Extension done to help Illinois producers and commercial applicators understand and comply with the WPS? In addition to press releases, newsletter articles, radio spots, and answers to untold individual compliance questions, we have spread the word in the following ways:
- WPS-specific sessions. Soon after the EPA's manual The Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides: How to Comply was released in 1993, University of Illinois Extension offered numerous informational WPS sessions across the state. These sessions continued for several years until widespread interest waned. In recent years, University of Illinois Extension has, upon request, conducted WPS refresher and WPS train-the-trainer sessions.
- WPS worker and handler training. The WPS provisions are discussed during private and commercial pesticide applicator training clinics, and, upon request, the Extension educator or specialist can issue a worker or handler training verification card following training (these cards are optional and no test is required). Since about 1995, U of I Extension has issued 71 worker cards and 223 handler cards. Clearly, these cards are requested by a small fraction of the WPS employees in Illinois.
- WPS resources. The Pesticide Safety Education Web site (http://www.pesticidesafety.uiuc.edu/facts/facts.html) offers several simplified WPS guides, a resource guide, and linkage to the EPA's WPS Web site. Note that a wide range of WPS training materials and compliance publications and supplies can be purchased through major agricultural and horticultural supply catalogs, such as Gempler's.
Future of WPS
Following full implementation in the mid-1990s, there have been a few specific amendments to the WPS rules that provide increased flexibility. However, the 132-page How to Comply manual published in July 1993 remains as EPA's official compliance reference. Over the past 11 years, the EPA has received considerable constructive and destructive criticism about the WPS from producer groups, worker advocacy groups, the U.S General Accounting Office (report dated 4/13/2000), and the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee.
In response, the EPA sponsored four national stakeholder workshops over the past three years to determine if and how the WPS provisions should be revised. University of Illinois Extension specialist Michelle Wiesbrook participated in two of these workshops. The reassessment centered on six areas: (1) training, (2) enforcement, (3) complaint and retaliation, (4) communications, (5) children's health, and (6) funding.
In short, the WPS is a federal program, and diverse stakeholder needs and opinions must be addressed. At this time, there is little more than speculation to offer WPS employers and employees regarding potential changes to the rules and regulations. A draft national WPS reassessment report is expected in mid-July 2003, and a draft proposal for regulation changes is planned for September 2004.
In the meantime:
- Review the existing WPS provisions (see item 3, "WPS resources"), and make sure you are adequately protecting yourself and your employees as well as third parties (e.g., crop advisers, commercial applicators, etc.) who enter your fields. If you have specific questions, don't hesitate to contact your local University of Illinois Extension office. In addition, you can contact Bruce Paulsrud (217-244-9646) or Michelle Wiesbrook (217-244-4397) for help.
- Watch for EPA's draft reassessment report later this year. Expect further information via this newsletter.
Until the dust begins to settle with the WPS reassessment, U of I Extension does not intend to launch any major WPS-specific training campaigns or develop additional paper, Internet, or other digital training materials.--Bruce Paulsrud