An Oregon regulatory agency is proposing that agricultural workers be allowed to shelter inside farmworker housing while certain pesticides are being sprayed, but advocates say the state should instead create no-spray buffers around housing. 

Representatives from the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration took public comments during morning and evening hearings Tuesday at the Medford library.

Statewide, 309 worker camps house 9,283 people. Jackson County has 21 worker camps that house 801 people, according to OSHA.

The agency says it doesn't know how many housing units are close to crops that are sprayed with pesticides.

The term pesticide is an umbrella term covering herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and similar products.

If a trained, properly equipped worker spraying pesticides isn't required by regulations to wear a respirator, people living in nearby housing wouldn't be required to leave their homes during the spraying, under proposed OSHA rules.

The people would be required to shut windows, doors and air intakes, and take other precautions to avoid accidental contamination from any drifting pesticides, said Garnet Cooke, OSHA's pesticide coordinator.

If the worker applying pesticides is required to wear a respirator, people would have to close up their housing and move away at least 150 feet. They would have to stay away for at least 15 minutes, Cooke said.

The 15-minute window would allow time for spray to settle, she said.

Oregon is proposing the rules as an alternative to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard that creates a 100-foot zone around spray equipment as it moves. People who aren't applying the pesticide are required to stay out of the zone until the equipment passes by.

Under the Trump administration, the EPA may eliminate that moving buffer, according to OSHA.

"There is a very real possibility the EPA could roll back worker protection standards," OSHA spokesman Aaron Corvin said.

OSHA's proposal to allow workers to shelter inside housing under some circumstances minimizes disruption to their lives, especially at night and in the early morning, he said.

Corvin noted it is already illegal to allow pesticide spray to drift onto housing.

When the EPA created the 100-foot buffer zone around moving spray equipment, it was considering workers in the field, he said.

OHSA wants to also protect workers if spray drifts illegally toward housing, Corvin said.

Under OSHA's proposal, workers in the field would have to stay 100 feet away from spray equipment if the person applying the pesticide doesn't have to wear a respirator. The buffer zone would expand to 150 feet if the pesticide handler has to wear a respirator, under OSHA proposals.

Many local residents speaking at the Medford hearings said the OSHA proposals don't go far enough.

Milo Mechan said he suffers from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after being exposed to his parents' smoking. He raised concerns that airborne pesticides could still get inside worker housing.

Mechan pointed to the example of smoke from this summer's wildfires.

"Even though I was staying inside my house and not going outside, the smoke was getting in my home," he said.

Mechan recommended a permanent pesticide buffer zone around farmworker housing.

Jon Matheson echoed those sentiments.

"There's a quality here of saying these people are not valuable," he said, calling for better protections for farmworkers and their families.

Jim Thompson said he was enveloped in a cloud of chemicals while biking when a pesticide sprayer being operated incorrectly exposed people going by on a public road.

He said pesticide spraying affects everyone.

"It's not just the workers. It's the general population and the environment," Thompson said.

OSHA is accepting public comments on the proposed rules through Jan. 31, 2018.

To see the rules, visit osha.oregon.gov, go to rules and laws, and then proposed rules.

Comments can be emailed to tech.web@oregon.gov, faxed to 503-947-7461 or mailed to Department of Consumer and Business Services/Oregon OSHA, 350 N.E. Winter St., Salem, OR 97301-3882.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.