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California bans hand-weeding

Farmworker advocates say the practice results in back injuries

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. ' California became the first state Thursday to ban hand-weeding in most commercial crops, which farmworker advocates say results in debilitating back injuries.

The Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board approved the temporary restriction on hand-weeding, which will take effect within two weeks. A permanent rule could still take a year to craft and complete.

Growers and farmworkers have been battling over the practice of hand-weeding for years. In 1975, California banned a short-handle hoe that required workers to stoop low for hours at a time as they pulled weeds. At United Farm Worker Union leader Cesar Chavez's funeral, his grandchildren placed the 12-inch tool on an altar as a symbol of the labor activist's effort to improve the lives of farmworkers.

While the ban ended the use of the tool, it didn't prohibit workers from weeding by hand, which can cause similar injuries. In 1993, the state's Occupational Health and Safety office found that prolonged hand-weeding caused the same debilitating back injuries associated with use of the short hoe.

OSHA said the existing ban didn't allow them to take any action against those growers, said Mike Meuter, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents farmworkers and pushed for the new rules.

— Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, tried in 2001 to pass legislation that would ban the practice. Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, tried in 2003. Both failed in the face of opposition from traditional farmers and organic growers. Farm worker advocates then took the issue to the state agency, which oversees worker safety issues.

The resulting rule requires farms to show that long-handled tools aren't effective before they can require workers to weed by hand for extended periods of time. If the workers must hand-weed, they are entitled to longer breaks and are limited in how much time they could spend hand-weeding.

Len Welsh, acting chief of the Occupational Health and Safety division, said hand-weeding can have serious health implications, but the regulations would be a challenge to enforce.

In most OSHA rules, there's a particular tool that's not allowed or a substance you can't expose workers to, Welsh said. Here, you're talking about a work practice, something completely behavioral.

The Western Growers Association opposed the previous legislation because they were outright bans, said Mike Webb, governmental affairs counsel for the organization. The regulation is more reasonable, he said.

We've talked to a number of our growers, he said. They've agreed it's something they can live with.

Organic farmers, who rely on hand-weeding, are exempt from the rule.

Because they don't use pesticides, organic growers have more of a weed problem than nonorganic growers, Webb said. Without an exemption, it would have jeopardized the organic industry.

Agriculture is one of the state's top industries, supporting more than — million jobs and contributing nearly &

36;28 billion to the state's economy.

There is little data on the prevalence of hand-weeding on California farms. It appears to be most common in coastal areas, where crops such as lettuce, carrots, celery and strawberries can require delicate weeding.

The same kind of crops we have here are grown in other nations, other states. The crops aren't unique to California, Webb said. Yet, he said, we're going to be the only place on the face of the Earth that has a regulation or law that outlaws hand-weeding.

Meuter, who represents the farmworkers, said the ban won't be too burdensome on growers and is a balanced compromise between the two sides.

It's a good initial step, said Meuter. California's farmworkers deserve these protections. It's been too long.

On the Net:www.dir.ca.gov/oshsb/handweeding0.htm