Texas Leads in Pesticide Right-to-Know

By Elaine Davenport

Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, p. 7

One of Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower's pet projects has come to fruition, and he is calling it "the beginning of a new age of enlightenment in the agricultural workplace."

On January 1, Texas became the first state to require farm operators to provide workers with specific information about chemicals they may be exposed to in agricultural jobs. Known as the Farm worker Right-to-Know Law, it applies to employers with a gross annual payroll of $50,000 or more for permanent workers or $15,000 or more for seasonal workers.

"That would apply to almost all vegetable and citrus growers, or they shouldn't be in business," says program coordinator Beltran Chavez. In fact, the law is not meant to apply to small operators.

Chavez estimates at least 10,000 employers are covered by the new law and must maintain a list--by crop--of every chemical used or stored on the farm in excess of fifty-five gallons or five hundred pounds. The employer must keep the records for thirty years, or send them to the Texas Department of Agriculture for storage and retrieval.

The Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas A&M Extension Service are jointly responsible for training agricultural employees about the proper use of agricultural pesticides. This mandate differs from similar laws for other industries, which put the training burden on the employer.

The TDA and Extension Service are developing bilingual crop information sheets about the chemicals most widely used, their health effects, emergency procedures, employers' responsibilities and workers' rights. These sheets will be provided to employers for distribution to farm workers. Video training materials are also available.

The TDA has hired three staff persons for the project and five Right-to-Know specialists to work in the field. Despite recent hard economic times in Texas, the legislature authorized about $400,000 per year for the new program.

"Agriculture is the last major recognized industry to come on board with right-to-know," says Chavez, who previously administered farm worker health programs at migrant clinics in both Texas and California. "That's probably because of the strength of the agricultural and chemical lobbies."

Surprisingly perhaps, there have been few harsh responses from employers. "We have had forty or fifty requests from producers for information," says Chavez. "They seem to have realized that some law was eventually going to affect them, so there was some measure of acceptance."

Chavez says that he expects other states to have right-to-know laws for agriculture soon, probably not through legislation as in Texas but through regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and other U.S. government agencies which will be extended to cover agriculture.

Commissioner Hightower has made the Right-to-Know program a priority because he thinks agriculture should stop and take a look at chemicals. "They are a habit and an expense," says Hightower. "We should see if chemicals are warranted in terms of the long-run ecological effect."

Freelance reporter Elaine Davenport divides her time between Austin, Texas, and London, England.