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Assembly Panel Weakens Bill to Protect Farm Workers

Times Staff Writer

For two decades, Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland) has battled the state’s influential agriculture industry in an unsuccessful campaign to protect farm workers from accidental pesticide poisoning.

On Tuesday, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee kept the Legislature’s 20-year record intact, all but killing Petris’ latest effort, a measure that would have required farmers to post warning signs around their fields whenever they are using dangerous pesticides.

Existing law requires the warnings only if use of a chemical leaves a field contaminated for at least seven days.

Farmers argue--and the Department of Food and Agriculture consistently has agreed--that posting signs is too costly and provides no assurance that farm workers will not be poisoned. Department officials conceded Tuesday, however, as they have in the past, that several incidents last year could have been avoided if fields had been posted with danger signs.

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In a 13-8 vote led by Democrats from the state’s agricultural areas, the committee stripped Petris’ bill of its requirement that farm workers be warned from the first day that a toxic pesticide has been used. As it emerged from the committee, the amended bill would impose additional criminal penalties on growers who intentionally endanger farm workers’ health but contained nothing to caution the workers against accidentally straying into fields recently sprayed with a dangerous chemical.

“The truth is the weight of the votes (on this issue) rests with agriculture,” Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento), a committee member, said during Tuesday’s hearing. “The truth is most of them in their hearts know this is a proper bill, a well-drafted bill to deal with a real problem.”

Petris, who bitterly attacked the committee and the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture for opposing his efforts, said he will attempt to work out an agreement before the Legislature adjourns for the year on Sept. 13. He conceded, however, that “probably nothing will happen.”

“I don’t see any good coming out of any more discussions,” Petris told the committee. “The highest industrial illness rate of any type of work you want to get into is on the farm. And we’re sitting here saying we can’t post (warnings) because the whole agricultural empire is going to collapse.”

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Before Tuesday’s vote, the bill, supported by organized labor, seemed to have defied the odds. It won approval in the Senate, was stripped of its important provisions in one Assembly committee but restored to its original strength in another.

Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan (D-Fresno), who led the fight to kill the posting requirement, said felony penalties included in the bill would deter farmers from endangering workers. “My feeling is . . . that generally there is a bill here that could be supported by the agricultural community and the labor community with a little more time.”

Petris pledged to “be back next year” with another bill.


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