A state board on Thursday banned unnecessary hand-weeding on farms to protect workers from back injuries, acting on an emergency basis to fix a problem they had discussed for a decade.
"We support the regulation not because it's perfect, but because it's better than the state of nonregulation today," Mark Schacht, deputy director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, told the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.
The new regulation bars employers from forcing workers to stoop over and weed by hand when long-handled hoes would work, although there are some exceptions.
The problem of hand-weeding began when California banned the short-handled hoe in 1975. Overwhelming medical evidence showed that weeding with the 12-inch tool caused debilitating back injuries. But because the rule did not apply to weeding by hand, hand-weeding spread. A 1993 study by Cal/OSHA concluded that hand-weeding caused back problems as severe as those caused by using the short-handled hoe.
For years, advocates for growers and labor were unable to agree on how best to regulate the practice. But both sides support the compromise approved Thursday, which allows hand-weeding as a last resort for farmers. The breakthrough was negotiated by the Schwarzenegger administration at the insistence of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco).
"The scientific basis for the proposal is solid," said board member Robert Harrison, a physician and expert in occupational health. Harrison said the new ban "wins the record for the longest legacy of rule-making I've ever seen."
Representatives of agricultural groups disagreed with some wording in the new rules but supported closing the loophole that left hand-weeding unregulated.
"It's not perfect, but it does move the policy in the appropriate direction," said Louie Brown, a lobbyist representing the nursery industry.
Cal/OSHA will enforce the regulation primarily by investigating complaints. To cite an employer, the state would have to prove that unnecessary hand-weeding was ordered for a sustained period of time. To avoid fines that could total thousands of dollars, employers cited would have to show that no other weeding method was effective.
Organic farming and plants grown in tubs are exempt because they are so reliant on hand-weeding.
An emergency version of the regulation will be in effect for 120 days while public hearings are conducted. Some representatives of farm groups asked for a delay to fine-tune language in the new rules, but the board disagreed.
Said Schacht: "Act now, protect farmworkers from increasing injury, and send a message to the industry that unnecessary hand-weeding is no longer tolerated."