February 1, 2005
Ag workers to undergo tests for nerve damage
Starting today, up to 50 percent more agricultural workers in Washington will be checked for possible central nervous system damage incurred on the job.
Workers who handle certain pesticides used on crops, including tree fruit, asparagus, potatoes and hops, for 30 hours or more in a 30-day period must participate in the program. Last year, when the state program was started, only workers who handled the chemicals for 50 hours or more were required to take part.
Regular exposure to organophosphate and carbamate pesticides can depress levels of an enzyme critical to a central nervous system function called cholinesterase. The resulting symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, nausea, convulsions and even death.
Today's change casts a wider net for workers who handle these chemicals. It also highlights disagreements in the agricultural community over the effectiveness of the monitoring program.
Farm-worker groups expected the program to be expanded this year.
The state Department of Labor & Industries rule called for the 30-hour threshold to be phased in after two years unless results during the first year showed broader testing was unnecessary, said Eric Nicholson, Northwest regional director for the United Farm Workers union. He believes the data produced after one year point to a need to expand the program.
"We're happy to see things moving forward," he said.
Agricultural employers' representatives see it differently.
They say data gathered in 2004 is questionable and shouldn't be used to decide whether to expand the program. For example, the laboratory that handled workers' blood samples was asked to perform twice as many initial tests as anticipated.
"The Department of Health laboratory was overloaded and wasn't able to process data as quickly as we would have liked," said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House.
Also, farmers had problems keeping accurate records of how many hours each worker handled the pesticides in question.
The state acknowledges the program is still being fine-tuned.
"Everything was new last year," said Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman with L&I.
In 2004, 119 agricultural workers — about one-fifth of those who completed the monitoring program — saw cholinesterase levels decline more than 20 percent. More than 2,600 workers were initially tested, but only about 600 completed the program. L&I expects some 4,000 workers to go for initial tests under the expanded program.
The vast majority of workers with depressed levels were in the tree-fruit industry. Mayer disputed the figures and said another year's data would provide a clearer picture.
L&I evaluated the employers who had a worker with depressed cholinesterase. In many cases, Fischer said, employers had at least a basic program to address pesticide safety. There were some problems with inadequate protective equipment — workers wearing only baseball caps or bandanas, or respirators that did not fit properly or were overdue for a new filter. In other instances, workers did not wash their hands, faces and necks before going on a break, which can lead to greater pesticide exposure.
The evaluations often occurred weeks after a person was exposed to the chemicals, so it was difficult to reconstruct the exact circumstances, Fischer said.
The state was reminding agricultural employers this week that their workers must have blood tests at the beginning of the year, before they handle any pesticides to establish a baseline. Those baselines are then compared with blood tests later in the year to measure changes in the level of the cholinesterase.
The monitoring program will be reviewed next month at an agricultural safety event in Yakima. Agricultural Safety Day is March 9 at the Yakima Convention Center, 10 N. Eighth St.