The condition of housing that farmers provide or rent to migrant workers has long been a source of concern in Oregon, which is home to more migrant labor camps than any other state.
That’s why a proposed rule under consideration by Occupational Safety and Health Administration that would allow workers and their families to hunker down in their residences while pesticides are sprayed on crops nearby is raising some eyebrows.
Critics say the description of buildings eligible for people to take shelter in is too ambiguous to adequately protect workers, who in some cases live in dilapidated structures.
As it’s written, the law indicates that any “fully enclosed” space can be used as a shelter from pesticide spraying. “Fully enclosed,” according to OSHA’s proposal, means “that walls, ceilings, and floors of the spaces are tightly constructed to minimize the entry of outside air when doors and windows are closed.”
Attorneys representing farmworkers are arguing that the definition should contain more specific parameters and that labor camp housing codes should be improved simultaneously if housing is going to qualify as a protective space.
Additionally, because many camps have outdoor showers, play areas, and eating and cooking spaces, the attorneys say OSHA should examine whether there are options that would be more protective of workers and their families.
OSHA does not track the number of camps that have outdoor facilities or that sit adjacent to working fields, but agency spokesperson Aaron Corvin noted, “We would anticipate that many agricultural employers have housing facilities near crop areas where pesticides are applied.”
There are 330 registered work camps in Oregon that are subject to OSHA inspections, however, it’s been estimated there could be as many as 200 illegal unregistered camps where living conditions are poor.
Approximately 10,000 people live in Oregon’s labor camps, including children.
At a September meeting in Pendleton, Oregon Law Center attorneys who represent farmworkers briefed members of the governor’s Environmental Justice Task Force on OSHA’s pre-draft proposal of agriculture worker protection rules.
The task force was established by the Legislature to help protect minority and low-income populations from disproportionate environmental impacts.
The attorneys voiced concerns with the shelter-in-place rule, showing task force members photographs of rundown farmworker housing across Oregon, some with significant openings that would allow for substantial airflow.
OSHA Administrator Michael Wood was also present at the meeting*, and members of the task force asked him if OSHA could make a rule that would provide for a buffer zone to better protect living spaces from pesticide drift.
Wood said that was off the table.
“We cannot prohibit application of a legal product,” he said, even if it means residential housing could be exposed.
Task force member Joel Iboa later argued that if Oregon can provide buffers around other types of residential housing, it should be able to protect farmworkers too.
“I see no difference between residential homes and farmworker housing,” he said.
Pesticides have been shown to have negative health implications, especially in children and expectant mothers. While the effects of individual pesticides are known, the effects of pesticide mixtures that are often applied have not been adequately researched.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency revised agricultural worker protection standards around pesticides at the federal level. It included in its revisions a law requiring a 100-foot exclusion zone around the pesticide-spraying equipment, which people would have to vacate during application as the equipment moved across the field.
It’s up to each state to decide which rules to fully adopt and which rules to replace with alternative rules. OSHA has proposed that it adopt most as-is, but it has proposed nine alternative administrative rules, including the option for workers to “shelter in place” rather than be forced to vacate the premises every time pesticides are sprayed. They would need to stay inside only until the pesticide-spraying equipment moved out of their range.
Wood said the EPA rules don’t address things like cooking and playground equipment either.
“If drift occurs, if there is a problem, and EPA only solves the immediate issue of worker not standing there in the immediate moment. Eighty to 90 percent of concerns would not be solved by EPA rules,” he told the task force.
But, he said, OSHA is in a unique position because it’s one of only two jurisdictions in the country that not only oversees rules regarding pesticide spraying, but also oversees worker housing standards.
“I am not excited about our proposal,” Wood said. “I’d be willing to look at housing standards.”
However, housing standards were not included in the final proposal, which is now in the public comment phase, ending Dec. 14. OSHA will likely adopt its new rules shortly thereafter.
Oregon Law Center, again, addressed the governor’s Environmental Justice Task Force at its Dec. 2 meeting in Salem. One of the law center’s attorneys, Julie Samples, is also a member of the task force. Nargess Shadbeh, who heads the law center’s Farmworker Program, joined her.
“We speak from what we hear from farmworkers,” Shadbeh said at the meeting, adding that she has been working with these communities for years.
“The health of these individuals at these sites are directly affected,” she said, warning the task force that once OSHA adopts rules, they might not change again for many years.
“The proposal, in short, is basically codifying what has been happening for decades in our state,” Shadbeh told the task force, “and frankly, no more.”
But, she said, “at least we are discussing it.”
She and Samples recommended the task force ask OSHA and Gov. Kate Brown to consider adopting EPA’s rule related to exclusion zones, and then take some more time to figure out a rule for Oregon to adopt that would truly protect workers. The task force agreed to follow through on their recommendations before the public comment period ends, but it’s yet to be seen if its requests yield any results.
“Those labor camps are occupied, to some extent, year-round now, but the height is from May to September,” Shadbeh told the room. “We have time.”
One day earlier, at a Dec. 1 public hearing for the proposed rules, the Woodburn Grange was filled with farmers and groups representing the interests of farms, forestry and nurseries. There were no migrant farmworkers at the hearing.
All 39 written comments submitted to OSHA up to that point were in favor of adopting the shelter-in-place rule, and most were signed copies of a form letter that originated on the website of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agricultural interest group.
OSHA’s Corvin said the agency does not do any direct outreach to people living in labor camps; it relies instead on groups such as the Oregon Law Center to represent them.
All who testified at the grange that day were also in favor of the shelter-in-place rule and criticized only the proposal that trainers, who are typically already certified in pesticide application, go through an additional “train the trainer” training.
Scott Dahlman, an Environmental Justice Task Force member and policy director at Oregonians for Food and Shelter, told the task force, “We want to protect workers as well, but want to make sure it’s done in a way that’s workable for farmers.”
Dahlman pointed out that the proposed rules contain “really clear language” related to pesticide spray drift that indicates that applicators must ensure that pesticides do not come into contact with occupied housing structures.
“We do know that accidental drift occurs,” Samples said in response. “Organic farmers who want to be certified have to present a plan to mitigate drift, and there is nothing in these rules that would require such a plan,” she told the task force.
While housing conditions have been improving in many of the registered migrant worker camps across Oregon, thanks to some tax incentive programs and nonprofits focused on the issue, many routinely fall behind housing standards set by OSHA.
Since the start of the year, five farms based in Portland’s tri-county area alone have been cited for violations of labor camp housing standards, according to OSHA. They were cited for overcrowding, poor maintenance, exposure to airborne lead, faulty doors and various other violations.
*Correction: A previous version of this story stated OSHA Administrator Michael Wood had phoned-in to the September meeting of the Environmental Justice Task Force when he was at the meeting in person. We regret the error.
How to comment
To submit a public comment before the Dec. 14 deadline:
Department of Consumer and Business Services at Oregon OSHA
350 Winter St. NE
Salem, OR 97301-3882
By email: email@example.com
By fax: 503-947-7461
OSHA information: Call 503-947-7449
Read the plan: "Proposed Changes to the Worker Protection Standard in Agriculture With Federal and State Changes"
Contact Street Roots reporter Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org