Pesticide safety: Avoid costly risks

Added July 7, 2023

Pesticides cause around 20,000 poisonings annually in the U.S. Horticultural workers who handle pesticides directly face higher risks of poisoning and a trip to their healthcare facility.

Complying with regulations and guidelines is crucial for safe handling and application. You can help protect your employees—and your bottom line—with these 10 tips from our safety team:

1. Educate and train staff

No matter what type of horticultural business you run, it comes down to this: if you buy, use, or store pesticides, safety training is essential. Educate your staff on potential hazards related to pesticide use and the precautions they can take to help protect themselves and others.

Pesticide regulations and best practices evolve over time. Stay current on the latest EPA-approved training materials and guidelines related to pesticide use. Provide ongoing training about changes in regulations or safety practices.

Maintain training records, including attendance and materials, to document your business's commitment to safety and regulatory compliance.

2. Communicate with employees and customers

Enhance your business's safety culture with clear communication to employees and customers about your pesticide use.

  • Inform all employees before and during pesticide application

  • Clearly mark and restrict access to areas that have been recently treated with pesticides

  • Use signs to note restricted entry intervals (REI) and direct employees and customers to avoid the area until it's safe

3. Document pesticide application

Maintain detailed records of your business's pesticide applications that include:

  • Who performed the application

  • Product names

  • EPA registration numbers

  • Crops

  • REIs

  • Application dates

  • Rates

  • Amount applied

Accurate documentation is valuable for tracking usage, identifying potential issues, and demonstrating compliance in case of any legal concerns.

4. Read and follow label instructions

Pesticide labels provide vital information on safe use, including explicit instructions for mixing, diluting, and applying. Don't ignore any instructions about application rates, protective equipment, REI, or any other precautions noted.

Labels also include first-aid information, storage and disposal details, and important signal words and warning levels, including:

  • Danger: Extremely harmful

  • Warning: Moderately harmful

  • Caution: Slightly harmful—but may make you sick

5. Use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)

Require your employees to wear PPE any time they mix, apply, or discard chemicals. It's the one barrier between harmful chemical inhalation or accidental contact with skin or mucous membranes.

Keep PPE supplies onsite and accessible to employees, including:

  • Respirators

  • Chemical-resistant aprons, footwear, headgear, and suits

  • Coveralls

  • Gloves

  • Protective eyewear

PPE is only helpful if it's used correctly. Reinforce proper care—and maintenance—of PPE.

6. Reduce personal exposure

Remind employees, when applying chemicals, to be hyper-aware of not touching their face, mouth, or nose—especially when wearing gloves that may be contaminated. Always assume any clothing or PPE used during a pesticide application is exposed to the chemical.

When chemical work is completed, handlers should immediately and thoroughly wash hands with soap and water to remove residue. They should be careful to either discard affected clothing or, if taking clothing home, wash work clothes separately from the family laundry.

Symptoms of pesticide exposure

If your employees have been exposed to pesticides, they may experience a range of symptoms—some of which may not appear until months or years later. Here are a few common symptoms, but note that this isn't meant to be a complete list:

  • Rashes

  • Tender nose

  • Sore throat

  • Watery eyes

  • Vomiting

Instruct your staff on how to respond to pesticide-related emergencies, including:

  • Reporting incidents

  • Administering first aid

  • Contacting poison control, emergency services, and other authorities

7. Plan for chemical spillage

Even with safety protocols in place, spills can still happen. Take even small spills seriously. Create a spill plan with your staff that includes detailed instructions on ventilation, product cleanup, disposal, and decontamination. Specify who to contact when spills occur and when evacuations are necessary.

Remember the three Cs for addressing spills:

  • Control: Put on appropriate PPE and immediately shut off any ignition sources capable of creating a spark. Place the lid tightly on the container and tip the container upright, if possible.

  • Contain: Start from the perimeter and spread absorbent material or neutralizing product on the spill, working toward the center. If possible, block access to the spill, preventing others from coming into contact with it.

  • Clean: Collect the absorbent or neutralizing material and discard it in a protective container, such as a lidded pail or drum, according to local laws or environmental regulations. Dispose of contaminated rags, gloves, brooms, dustpans, and other items used to clean up.

8. Clean and maintain equipment

Regular maintenance of your spraying equipment helps reduce the risk of leaks or malfunctions. Promptly repair or replace any damaged or faulty equipment—especially hoses, nozzles, and fittings. Clean and flush equipment thoroughly to avoid cross-contamination and ensure accurate application in future uses.

9. Ensure proper pesticide storage

Strategic pesticide storage is important. Follow a label's specific instructions for storage, but also consider additional risks that could impact your storage area, such as fire, flood, or severe weather.

Federal and state regulations can also impact how you store pesticides. For example:

Also notify your local fire department if you're storing pesticides. The types and location of pesticides on your property can help the fire department better understand how to respond to an emergency.

10. Dispose of chemicals and pesticides safely

Never throw away containers without following label directions, local laws, and environmental regulations. Improper pesticide disposal—including containers, unused products, and rinsate—can contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water. Not only is this destructive to the environment and dangerous to nearby residents, it can also lead to serious liability problems for your business.

Additionally, never burn or incinerate chemical containers, as the fumes are toxic. Contact your local Department of Natural Resources (DNR) office for state-specific guidelines.

Pesticides and business insurance

When your business uses pesticides, consider adding optional coverages to your policy—or purchasing higher limits on your standard coverages—for extra protection. General liability coverage offers some protection, but it may not account for all scenarios and risks associated with workplace pesticide use.

Our agents are available to guide you through potential policy exclusions, limits, and additional coverage options. And our Loss Control and Safety Services team can help assess the potential hazards associated with your business's pesticide use. We provide:

  • On-site consultations

  • Thermographic inspections

  • Targeted safety presentations

  • Training materials

  • Annual claims analysis

You can reach our Loss Control and Safety Services team at 800-851-7740. If you have questions about your insurance coverages, contact us.

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Worker spraying pesticides in a field

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