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Farm organizations press for more N95 respirators

Issue Date: September 9, 2020
By Christine Souza

At both the state and federal levels, agricultural advocates say they're working to enhance the availability of N95 respirators required for outdoor work in California during poor air quality related to wildfire smoke and other causes.

The N95 respirators have been in short supply for months, due to increased demand by health providers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The early onset of wildfire season worsened the problem for farmers and ranchers, who must comply with the state air-quality regulation.

Under the wildfire smoke standard from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, farmers must offer N95 masks or filtering face-piece respirators to outdoor employees, and encourage their use. The regulation applies when the Air Quality Index reaches levels of 151 or higher.

Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the current situation shows the need for flexibility by state regulators.

"It's only September and the wildfire season isn't going to be over for a couple of months, and we have no respirators," Little said. "The agency hasn't approved anything that serves as an alternative, and we're exactly where we were in March when we told the agency that this was going to be a problem."

To limit an employee's exposure to wildfire smoke, he said the regulation requires the employer to implement environmental controls such as air filtration, or administrative controls such as changing the employees' work location or limiting the amount of time they are exposed.

"In some types of outdoor employment, you might be able to do these controls, but in agriculture the grapes may need to be harvested today; either we harvest or we have no crop," Little said.

Prior to the wildfires, Little said Farm Bureau and other groups worked with the California Department of Food and Agriculture to acquire about 1.5 million respirators that were released to county agricultural commissioners from state supplies. But in mid-May, as the wildfires began, "there were people who couldn't get respirators when they needed them," he said.

Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot said in the early days of the pandemic, there were no masks of any kind available for the county's agricultural workforce.

"We had to rely on donations in the first weeks to get us through, as commercial supplies were unattainable," Groot said. "Recently, we distributed 175,000 N95 masks during smoke-event weeks here; most of those came from the state."

Cal/OSHA is testing alternative KN95 respirators, which are certified in China but not in the U.S., Little said.

In the meantime, he said, "We are asking the governor's office to allow alternatives to N95 respirators until such time as the supply chain is resolved."

At the federal level, Sara Arsenault, CFBF director of federal policy, said Farm Bureau is advocating for more supplies of PPE for agriculture.

Arsenault said legislation is being discussed to help farmers comply and acquire personal protective equipment. In addition, a bipartisan group of California representatives wrote last month to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, asking for increased supplies of PPE, specifically N95 respirators.

On behalf of California, the members of Congress said "the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 wildfire season warrants our request for the task force to work with relevant state and federal agencies to ensure America's farmers and farmworkers have priority access to the protective gear they need to do their essential work, including N95 or equivalent facial masks."

Arsenault said CFBF will continue to advocate for additional pandemic relief for California agriculture.

"We are not letting our foot off the gas in our efforts to help our farmers and ranchers," she said.

Although the next COVID-19 federal stimulus package is not expected to have an agricultural component, Arsenault said she hopes it will include provisions to address the PPE shortage in agriculture.

Arsenault said Farm Bureau was pleased that the U.S. Department of Agriculture included additional commodities in its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which provides direct financial assistance to farmers and ranchers who suffered price declines of 5% or greater for their crops or commodities in the first quarter of the fiscal year, or who absorbed losses due to pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and faced significant new marketing costs as a result.

Applications for the program close Sept. 11; information may be found at farmers.gov/cfap.

On wildfire policy, Arsenault said Farm Bureau supports the bipartisan Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act, a bill that would implement wildfire-mitigation projects and ensure healthier forests.

"Many California forests, like forests across the western United States, are unhealthy and at significant risk of high-severity wildfire, insect and disease epidemics, and other threats," CFBF President Jamie Johansson said. "Increasing the pace and scale of forest management activities, including mechanical thinning and controlled burning, reduces the threat of catastrophic fire, protects lives and communities, and safeguards and enhances California's essential water resources."

Johansson said the legislation would expedite forest management, accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation, and remove hazardous fuel load from national forests.

CFBF also has been in discussions with USDA regarding wildfire relief and disaster payment programs.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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