Engineering Solutions to Reduce Pesticide Exposure and Waste on Northwest Fruit Farms

The overall objectives of this project are to evaluate emerging pesticide application technologies and educational programming as interventions for breaking the pesticide exposure pathway on Northwest fruit farming systems. Labor-intensive fruit commodities put farmworkers and their families at disproportionate risk of pesticide-related illness via pesticide handling, drift, or the take-home exposure pathways. Due to ongoing concerns about the burden of occupationally related pesticide illnesses, the Washington State Legislature formed a five-year committee to develop recommendations for improving pesticide application safety and incentives for replacing old sprayer technologies with more adapting technologies. To address needs related to labor shortages and farm operation safety, growers are accelerating the implementation of automation technologies into their field operations.

Project aims are to:

  1. characterize adoption of emerging application technologies among Northwest fruit growers and impacts on occupational safety and health;  
  2. generate a database of source and receptor terms for spray attributes of three emerging technologies as engineering controls to minimize pesticide exposure; and,
  3. evaluate educational programming for worker skills, knowledge, and abilities related to safe operation of emerging spray technologies.

This project leverages a broad network of Northwest partnerships to inform assessments about current and planned uses for precision agriculture and corresponding impacts on pesticide safety and health. Members of our team work closely with equipment manufacturers, regulatory agency liaisons, and commodity specific grower organizations on research and extension projects in Washington and Oregon. This project contributes to the NIOSH Future of Work initiative by evaluating the risk-benefit tradeoffs of emerging technology in the workplace and by developing guidance for safe interactions with humans.

Progress to Date

UW Graduate Research Assistant (Tania Vellejo) was hired during Spring 2023 to make progress on our aim to characterize the adoption of emerging application technologies among Northwest fruit growers and impacts on occupational safety and health. Tania completed a literature review of current pesticide application methods and developed a draft survey for fruit growers and pesticide applicators in Washington and Oregon. With the help of our WSU co-investigator (Gwen Hoheisel), we are updating the draft bilingual (English-Spanish) survey by incorporating results from two previous surveys of Washington growers about technology use and adoption.

Tania and another UW graduate student (Miguel Rojas-Flores) took a field trip to attend “Optimizing & Use of Canopy Sprayers in the Vineyard” in May 2023. Alongside vineyard owners, managers, and employees, the UW students attended the demonstration to understand which technologies exist to optimize coverage and increase data acquisition during spraying. This field day event taught proper calibration and optimization of sprayers and introduced best management practices (BMPs) for better spray coverage with technologies such as rate controllers, directed and/or over-the-row sprayers, intelligent sprayers, and adaptations to air-blast sprayers. The UW students spoke with several pesticide applicators in Spanish to gain their perspective on these technologies and see how sprayers operate.

Next Steps

This fall and spring we will hold check-in meetings with the full project team (University of Washington, Washington State University, and Oregon State University). The focus of these meetings will be on survey analysis and fieldwork planning. We plan to deploy our survey and begin data collection in the winter. We will be piloting the survey on a small group of collaborators in Washington and Oregon (n=10). The survey will be distributed digitally through stakeholder channels maintained by University Extension Programs and Departments of Agriculture in Washington and Oregon. Importantly, we will begin deploying the survey at winter events (annual tree fruit industry meetings and pesticide safety meetings) throughout Washington and Oregon. Lastly, we have onboarded one of two new Research Assistants. One undergraduate student, Nede Ovbiebo, will upload the bilingual survey into our database (REDCap) for deployment and then analyze responses qualitatively (Dedoose) and quantitatively (R) under the direct supervision of a graduate student and Eddie Kasner. The graduate student will be hired for the winter and spring quarters.

Partners and Collaborators

Principal Investigators: Edward Kasner, Assistant Teaching Professor, University of Washington, and Lav Khot, Associate Professor, Washington State University.

NIOSH Funding Period 2022-2027