Farmworker Health and Safety

Before the mid-1980’s farmworkers had few health or safety protections that other workers enjoyed. Despite threats of retaliation, brave workers fought for better lives, and CLS and its predecessor organizations represented them in making dramatic change:

1985: Our advocacy convinced the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) to require drinking water, toilets and hand washing facilities in the fields.

1985: The short-handled hoe that workers were required to use caused serious and unnecessary back injuries. Our advocacy resulted in L&I banning the use of this tool in Washington.  

1985: At the urging of farmworkers and their advocates, the Legislature overturned L&I’s rule excluding farmworkers from the right to information about hazardous chemicals in the workplace by including farmworkers in Worker and Community Right to Know Act.

1989: Our advocacy propelled the Legislature to finally make farmworkers eligible for unemployment insurance, applied child labor rules, and provided for basic labor standards, such as rest and meal breaks. The Legislature also required protection of farmworkers from pesticides, including posting of sprayed fields and reporting of pesticide applications and pesticide-related illnesses.

1993: Through our advocacy, a farmworker who was poisoned by a highly toxic pesticide known as Phosdrin successfully petitioned the Washington State Department of Agriculture to ban the pesticide from Washington orchards. Twenty-seven workers were hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms for Phosdrin poisoning that year.

1991-1995: Our advocacy resulted in L&I and the Legislature finally including farmworkers in the minimum occupational safety standards that had covered all other Washington workers since 1973. Our legal analysis challenged the exclusion of farmworkers as unlawful and unconstitutional.

2002: In a case for farmworkers who spray and mix neurotoxic pesticides, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that state law required L&I to make rules to monitor exposure levels.  Rios v. Department of Labor & Industries, 145 Wn.2d 483 (2002).  L&I’s rules require that workers at serious risk of illness be removed from exposure before they become ill.  

2005-2007: Until the heat-related death of a farm worker in the Yakima area, Washington had not adopted rules protecting outdoor workers from heat illness. CLS represented clients in two requests that the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) adopt rules to protect outdoor workers from heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and similar illnesses. In response to the latest request, L&I in June 2007 adopted an emergency rule requiring at least a quart of drinking water per hour for workers at risk; procedures for responding to heat illness, including access to cooling areas and appropriate medical attention; and training for workers and supervisors on preventing heat illness. CLS continues to work for a permanent rule to protect the approximately 185,000 farm workers and low-wage workers performing construction and other outdoor labor.