Where are workers and their families safer during a predawn pesticide application to the orchard adjacent their house: indoors, with windows and ventilation closed, or a nearby orchard block in the dark until the sprayer moves on?
That’s the dilemma Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health division has been wrestling with the past two years, after the 2015 update to the federal Worker Protection Standards created a cushion area around active pesticide applications to prevent accidental exposure via drift.
That cushion, known as the Application Exclusion Zone, or AEZ, needs to be 100 feet when pesticides are applied to trees with an air-blast sprayer. It’s common in the tree fruit industry for worker housing to be within 100 feet of trees, but the original guidance from the EPA wasn’t clear about how housing fit into the AEZ rule.
So in 2016, Oregon proactively proposed allowing workers and their families to “shelter in place” inside during pesticide applications, as they typically have while sprayers work in nearby orchard blocks, and growers supported the proposal. But worker advocates said that this weakened the protective buffer from pesticide drift the AEZ rule intended to create, especially considering that some farm working housing is in poor condition.
Now, the state is poised to approve a new compromise rule that frustrates farmers and disappoints worker advocates at the same time the Trump administration is signaling plans to change and possibly eliminate the AEZ rule entirely. At press time, Oregon OSHA said a decision on the proposed rule was expected soon.
“Our frustration is that there is no real reason to do this,” said Mike Doke, director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, which represents 440 Oregon tree fruit growers. “If there was any indication that it was safer to evacuate, our growers would be the first ones to do that. Our growers live on these same orchard properties with their families.”
But, absent further clarification from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, evacuations appear to be what growers across the county will have to conduct this year to comply with the AEZ rule as it now stands.
A fact sheet on the rule released by the agency in February states that: “Agricultural employers must not allow any worker or other person (other than appropriately trained and equipped handlers involved in the application) in the AEZ that is within the boundaries of the agricultural establishment when the application is occurring. This includes people occupying migrant labor camps or other housing or buildings that are located on the agricultural establishment.”
The EPA declined to answer Good Fruit Grower’s questions about how those evacuations are expected to occur, what it would cost growers and what aspects of the AEZ rule it intends to change.
In Washington, state pesticide compliance program manager Joel Kangiser said that the federal requirement is clear that housing within the AEZ must be evacuated. “The only persons that can be within the AEZ are properly trained handlers,” he said. “It’s pretty black and white.”