One Student’s Story of Strengthening Protections for Farmworkers

Marco Salerno explains how regulations that protect people from pesticides exposure are made.

November 4, 2015

As Thanksgiving approaches, many Americans are starting to plan their dinner menus. In order to get autumn’s bountiful harvest from farms to our tables, an estimated 2-3 million U.S. farmworkers labor in the fields. Agricultural work is one of the country’s most dangerous jobs: farmworkers suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce in the nation.

Since 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regulated the agricultural use of pesticides through the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). Last year, as many farmworkers called for more robust rules, the EPA proposed draft revisions to the WPS and opened a public comment period to gather input before finalizing the new regulations.

For a public health student, there’s a lot to learn about the WPS revision process. Now an MPH student in Population and Family Health, Marco Salerno worked as a Research Coordinator at CATA, a migrant farmworker organization, prior to joining Mailman. He collaborated with community leaders, experts, and policymakers to gather comments and advocate for improvements to the WPS. “It’s one thing to learn about a population from a distance, but it’s another thing to actually talk with them,” says Salerno, “When you understand their perspective…you enhance your own perspective.”

Many of the comments submitted to the EPA by farmworkers were recently published in a paper co-authored by Salerno in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy. Transmission sat down with Salerno to learn more.

Tell us about the old Worker Protection Standard. What are some of the things farmworkers wanted to change?

Currently, there’s no minimum age requirement for handling pesticides, and farmworkers are not given adequate work safety training. The old rule mandates that "training" (a 10-minute video in English without context or a training instructor) occurs once every five years, which is not very effective at all. Farmworkers want training in Spanish, training every year, and to learn about the health effects of pesticides.

How did your organization push to improve the new WPS?

CATA organizers held focus groups with community leaders and conducted surveys to determine which were the priority issues. Together with the communities and a coalition of farmworker advocates, we generated a public awareness campaign, provided technical assistance, and met with policymakers in Washington, D.C. By the end of the nine-month comment period, we helped compile thousands of comments from farmworkers and farmworker advocates.

How important are public comments to the EPA?

Public comments are vital. In this case, comments clarified how pesticide safety standards are actually used in agricultural settings, identified the farmworkers’ concerns, and helped policymakers figure out what was wrong with the old rule and what should be in the new rule. That’s why it was so important for the farmworkers themselves to speak up and submit comments on the different issues they face. They’re the experts on their own particular experiences.

The EPA released the final WPS on September 28. What are some positive changes in the new regulations?

There are some key positives: under the new rule, farmworkers can request information about the specific pesticides they’ve been exposed to, and their employers have to keep a database of those pesticides for two years. The EPA added a minimum age requirement for handling pesticides: farmworkers have to be at least 18 years old. Another important change is that the old training video is being replaced so it’s more context-specific and comprehensive, and farmworkers now have to be trained every year.

Is the new WPS a win for farmworkers?

Mostly. It’s an important first step—but there’s still a long way to go. We didn’t get a few of the important changes we pushed for such as medical monitoring of farmworkers to measure lasting effects of pesticide exposure. Yet, even with the big improvements, the most crucial phases of WPS are implementation and enforcement.

Explain how the regulations are enforced.

The EPA mandates the rules, but the states enforce them. State by state, there’s a wide range of what is and how much is enforced, and how many inspectors are available. Furthermore, many violations are not investigated and violators are not penalized. I've met farmworkers who have never had any kind of training, who’ve been retaliated against or fired, or who have all sorts of diseases and illnesses; and none of them ever had a chance for recourse.

How can implementation be strengthened?

We hope the EPA will work with community-based organizations to help with the logistics of implementation. Rolling-out the new rule is complicated, and community-based organizations provide a good source of feedback. These kinds of relationships can ensure that the standards of the federal rule coincide with what’s really happening in communities.

Moving forward, Salerno plans to continue working with vulnerable populations such as migrant farmworkers. At Mailman, he will focus on both quantitative and qualitative methods of research to design, conduct, and analyze data. Salerno intends to use his research skills to improve policy, programs, and public health interventions.