Pesticide handling is a fact of life for agricultural workers. But it's also part of the job for just about anybody who cares for plants as part of their work, whether it's in a nursery, a greenhouse, or as part of landscaping operations. Making sure plants thrive is important, especially when they're our source of nourishment, but no worker should have to put their health on the line to achieve it.

Selecting personal protective equipment (PPE) for handling hazardous chemicals like pesticides is a complex process and should be made part of your organization's overall safety program. Employers need to take into consideration a variety of factors, including all identified hazards, the pathways for hazardous exposure (inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, and contact with the eye or skin), and how well the PPE can perform as a barrier against these hazards.

But knowing that you need to give your employees adequate protection doesn't mean you know where to start. To help situate you, this article will go over some of the things you need to know when outfitting your workers to safely handle pesticides.

Regulations and Guidelines

OSHA

OSHA cautions that the amount of protection needed will be material-hazard specific. This means that the protective equipment that does a good job protection your workers from exposure to chemicals might not be suited to protecting them against the pesticides they'll be spraying.

Never assume that your PPE will provide a one-size-fits-all solution for every hazard. Be sure to analyze each hazardous chemical the workers will be using and assess the adequacy of your PPE against each of them.

OSHA also notes that

In many instances, protective equipment materials cannot be found which will provide continuous protection from the particular hazardous substance. In these cases the breakthrough time of the protective material should exceed the work durations.

What this means is that some chemicals are so strong that there is not yet a PPE material that will last through continued uses. Employers need to recognize this danger and provide replacement PPE or disposable protective gear as necessary and as determined by the product manufacturer’s guidelines.

Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the final authority when it comes to pesticide compliance. But you must also look beyond EPA regulations, since state and local standards might be more stringent.

These regulations will apply not only to the worker handling the pesticide, but also to those who will be working in the affected area following the application. Providing all exposed workers with the right safety equipment should, therefore, be a critical part of your safety program.

In 2015, the EPA revised its Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) to increase protection from pesticide exposure. Changes to this regulation include expanded worker training, hazard communication, PPE, notification and other requirements. Be sure to discuss these changes with all of your PPE suppliers to make sure that you're using up-to-date equipment that meets the newer regulations.

Hazardous chemicals of any type used on the job require specific safety labels. The minimum PPE required to safely use the product is typically listed in the "Hazards to Humans (and Domestic Animals)" section of the pesticide product label. The "Directions for Use" section describes the minimum PPE for early entry (that is, for workers exposed to the product following the application).

Choosing the Right PPE

The PPE your workers need might include disposable coveralls, chemical-resistant suits, chemical-resistant aprons, and chemical-resistant headgear. Additional clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, are not considered PPE by federal regulators, but note that pesticide labels may recommend wearing them as an extra layer of protection.

You might notice some specifications dictating the use of "waterproof" or "chemical-resistant" gear. These definitions are important. Waterproof, in this context, means that there will be no measurable movement of water or aqueous solutions through the material while it is in use. Similarly, chemical-resistant PPE are those that will not allow any measurable movement of pesticide through the material.

It's always best to be extra cautious when it comes to workers' health and safety. Whenever possible, aim to exceed the minimum requirements when purchasing PPE. Make sure to consider:

  • Garment design
  • Seam construction
  • Duration and amount of exposure
  • Concentration of the active ingredients
  • Permeation rate
  • The physical working environment
  • Potential exposure to other workers or visitors to the job site

Proper PPE Use

During the use of a pesticide, as with any hazardous chemical, employers must provide:

  • Appropriate PPE in clean and operating condition
  • Training on the correct use of the equipment
  • Daily inspection of PPE for leaks, holes, tears, or wear
  • Removal or repair of any damaged equipment

Cleaning Protective Equipment

Workers should also be instructed in the care of their PPE. Since they're dealing with hazardous chemicals, employees should make sure not to take home any PPE that has been exposed. Protective equipment and clothing exposed to hazardous chemicals should also be washed separately from any other clothing and cleaned according to the manufacturer's specifications.

Employers must inform any person tasked with cleaning the PPE that it has been contaminated with pesticides. These notifications should be written and, ideally, part of an ongoing safety program governing the safe use of hazardous chemicals. They should include clear, easy to understand information about the potential harmful effects of exposure, as well as the correct way to clean and handle the equipment. In operations with many bilingual workers or workers for whom English is a second language, printing these notifications in multiple languages will help ensure compliance and the safety of workers (see 5 Steps to Creating a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Workplace to learn more).

Storing Protective Gear

After it has been cleaned, the PPE should be kept dry and stored in a well-ventilated place. Keep it stored away from other equipment to prevent any possible contamination.

If an inspection finds the equipment to be worn or damaged, retire it from use. Do not simply return the equipment to its usual storage spot; discard it to avoid accidental use.

In many cases, seams and closures have shorter breakthrough times and higher permeation rates than the fabric, so special care should be taken to inspect these parts of the gear.

Safe Handling

Pesticide products are hazardous but important to a number of industries. With the right equipment and procedures, they can be perfectly safe to handle. Make sure your employees have the right equipment so that the job gets done without anyone getting in harm's way.