Farmworker Health and Safety

Farmworker Health and Safety

Farm workers are exposed to a unique set of health and safety dangers. While most Americans are only exposed to pesticides through their food, farm workers (and their children) often work in the presence of large doses of active pesticides, which can lead to respiratory disease, mental illness, cancer, and birth defects.  Before 1975, California farm workers were forced to use the short-handled hoe that was only twenty-four inches long, forcing the farm workers who used it to bend and stoop all day long - a position that often led to lifelong, debilitating back injuries.

Cry Wolf Quotes

Unless we're able to weed that crop with the short-handled hoe, we are going to have to disk the crop up. It will cost a fortune if we are stopped from using the short-handled hoe. If you ban this tool, through your hasty action, you will bankrupt California's largest industry.

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Salinas Valley lettuce grower Tom Merrill’s testimony, California Industrial Safety Board (ISB) hearing.
03/27/1975 | Full Details | Law(s): Short-Handled Hoe Ban

In California, Mexican farm workers are no longer allowed to use the short-handled hoe they have used for generations; now they are required to use long-handled American type hoes. . . .This is not because the workers or the farmers want to change: but apparently because the city people, driving by, feel more comfortable watching the workers use the kind of hoes that look good through car windows.

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Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. The New York Times
03/18/1976 | Full Details | Law(s): Short-Handled Hoe Ban

People always complain about back problems. I've thinned and hoed and I'm a great big man. I've thinned lettuce along with workers when I was a younger fellow and I was starting out in the farming business, and it hurts and it hurts badly for about three days. Then after that you're in shape.

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Salinas Valley grower Robert Grainger, testimony at California’s Industrial Safety Board (ISB) hearing.
05/03/1973 | Full Details | Law(s): Short-Handled Hoe Ban

It was an absurd thing for the court to get into that. According to the safety information that we had, there is nothing unsafe about a short-handled hoe. [The interviewer here notes that it was known to negatively affect long term health]. Yes, it was detrimental to health; therefore the Supreme Court banned it. But when I go down on Market Street and I see these guys laying bricks on the sidewalks of Market Street, that's a hell of a lot more hazardous to health, in my opinion, than a short-handled hoe.

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J. Earl Cooke, former California Secretary of the Agriculture and Services Agency.
12/11/1975 | Full Details | Law(s): Short-Handled Hoe Ban

Related Laws and Rules

Backgrounders & Briefs

The Short-Handled Hoe Hearings: 1973- 1975

In 1972, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) petitioned the Industrial Safety Board of California’s Division of Industrial Safety to prohibit the use of the 12-inch short-handled hoe. The hearing transcipts are online here.