Lack of availability of respiratory personal protection equipment and fit testing during the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to release temporary guidance on respiratory protection for agricultural pesticide handlers.
The increased demand for respirators from healthcare workers during the COVID-19 crisis, along with global and national supply chain disruptions, has limited the availability of respiratory protection options for those in the agricultural sector. Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), agricultural pesticide handlers must use respiratory protection if a pesticide’s label requires it. Similarly, respirator fit testing, required under FIFRA, has been disrupted by service closures and supply chain issues as well.
Acknowledging that these challenges may cause agricultural production disruptions that could affect the nation’s food supply, EPA’s new guidance attempts to protect the health of pesticide handlers while recognizing that obtaining compliant personal protection equipment may be difficult or impossible for the agricultural industry.
In its guidance, EPA offers options for pesticide handlers to stay in compliance with FIFRA’s respiratory protection requirements and, if all options are exhausted, alternative approaches to respirator protection that EPA deems acceptable for the duration of the temporary guidance. Entities should first consider all options for staying in compliance with the regulations, including:
- Using alternative respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that offer equivalent or greater respiratory protection than those required on the pesticide’s label;
- Hiring commercial applicator services with enough respirators and respiratory protection capabilities;
- Opting to use agricultural pesticide products that do not require the use of respiratory protection; or
- Delaying pesticide applications until another compliant option is available.
Note that the list above is not exhaustive. EPA expects handler employers and handlers to take all reasonable steps to obtain compliance respiratory protection equipment or to complete respirator fit testing prior to implementing the guidance’s additional options.
If entities have exhausted all options and are still unable to acquire compliant respiratory protection equipment, the guidance offers three alternatives. The options, listed in preferred order, include:
- Reusing and extending the use of disposable N95 filter facepiece respirators;
- Using “expired” respirators (using respirators beyond their recommended service life); and
- Using respirators certified in certain other countries/jurisdictions.
Likewise, if entities are unable to complete the required respirator fit testing after exhausting all options, handler employers and handlers may delay the annual fit test.
EPA’s temporary guidance outlines strict terms and conditions for each of the options outlined above, and handler employers and handlers should thoroughly review these terms prior to implementing any of these alternative options. However, at a minimum, employers should ensure that handlers are medically evaluated and cleared to use the respirator prior to use, have received an initial fit test on the chosen respirator, and have received respirator use training specific to the respirator being used.
As with other temporary guidance, EPA will post notification at least seven days prior to terminating the temporary policy.
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