Surrounded by brushes, respirators and yellow plastic coveralls, Flor Servin held up a white baby onesie and told a room full of farm workers, in Spanish, they must scrub chemical residue from their protective equipment after work, for the health of their families as well as their own.
The lesson from Servin, a state pesticide safety education specialist, was just one highlighted earlier this month at the Yakima Convention Center, where instructors taught roughly 190 farm employees how to choose correct respirator cartridges, decontaminate gear and read pesticide labels.
“When we first got into this about four years ago, the average course size was anywhere from 20 to 40 people. Now we train close to 1,000 people a year in the months of January and February,” said Aaron Avila, a grower services representative for G.S. Long, a chemical, supply and consulting company that sponsored the class.
Demand for such classes is high because of changing expectations on the part of retailers who buy from growers. Many retailers rely on private auditors to visit processors, packers and farms throughout the world to verify quality, good environmental stewardship, animal welfare and worker protections.
The measures, called third-party verification programs, technically are voluntary, but many large retailers, including Costco, insist on them and won’t stock food from producers who don’t play ball. Global G.A.P., a German-based network of food producers and retailers, is the most noted example. G.A.P.’s purpose is to create private sector incentives for agricultural producers worldwide to adopt safe and sustainable practices, according to its website.
“Third-party food safety verification programs have really shined a light on these type of training events,” Avila said.
One way growers in Washington can prove they are responsible operators is to send their employees to classes that teach safe handling of pesticides. But the classes are at capacity.
“We’re just stretching ourselves so thin,” said Ofelio Borges, supervisor of the state’s Department of Agriculture farm worker education program.
Even with bigger classes to reach more people, instructors still often have to put people on a waiting list, Borges said.
Federal standards mandate the pesticide training once every five years, but most employers send their workers every year, both out of concern for safety and because more retailers expect a record of good workplace conditions.
“It refreshes my memory of things every year,” said Oscar Celis, a five-year employee of Pride Packing, a Wapato fruit company, through a translator. He attends every year.
The Washington Growers League, a Yakima industry association that focuses on labor issues, has requested about $500,000 in additional training funds from the Legislature to double the capacity of the state’s Agriculture Department’s farm worker education program.
“This is something that benefits everybody,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Growers League.
He knows it will be a tough sell in a year that lawmakers are under pressure to drastically increase education spending, mandated by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling.
The state’s farm worker education program includes a variety of courses that deal with the safe handling of pesticides.
Some are free, while some involve fees. Most are in Spanish and are held in Eastern Washington, particularly in the Yakima Valley, Tri-Cities and Wenatchee areas.
One of the most popular is the “hands-on” training course that officials once taught in blocks of a few dozen people at a time. In 2010, 462 people completed the hands-on handler training, according to the Agriculture Department. That jumped to 1,311 last year.
To keep up with demand, trainers have teamed with companies like G.S. Long and organizations such as the Washington Farm Bureau to stage symposium-style trainings with an emphasis on visual aids. They call the classes “interactive” instead of “hands-on.”
The companies or organizations pay for the facilities and the trainers, while the Agriculture Department’s experts teach the courses. G.S. Long has scheduled four such trainings this year.
Some of the lessons, such as scrubbing residue off coveralls, seem like common sense, but a lot can go wrong with safety equipment, Borges said.
“The first time I got on a tractor, my respirator fell down and I ran over it with the tractor,” said Borges, a former seasonal migrant laborer. “That was because I didn’t put it on right.”
Joe Ayala believes in the trainings.
The 51-year-old foreman for Pride Packing had not attended a course for several years and came Jan. 21 for a refresher.
“It’s really important because it’s protecting our lives, our body,” he said.
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