Pesticide Safety

Producers must transport, store and apply pesticides safely to preserve their health and the trust non-farming neighbours have in agriculture.

by Jackie Clark

Most producers know that anyone who purchases and uses Class B and C pesticides in Ontario require pesticide safety certification. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers whose certification expired after Jan. 1, 2020 have been granted a temporary extension until Dec. 31, 2021.

This extension does not mean that we take a break from thinking about pesticide safety. Understanding the risks and taking action to prevent them is part of building a positive safety culture on your farm, according to Robert Gobeil. He’s the agricultural health and safety specialist for the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

“There can be short-term and long-term risks to exposure, with both acute and chronic health effects from using pesticides,” Gobeil says. “If one person is compromised, health-wise, it really affects the farming operation.”

To preserve the health and safety of both people and the business “it’s important to take the proper precautions” he explains.

That includes certification, reading labels, record-keeping and the proper use of personal protective equipment or other engineering controls.

Understanding risk

The safe use of pesticides is key in “making sure we get to go home at the end of the day and come back and do this again tomorrow,” Phil Emmott, Ontario territory manager for Corteva Agriscience, tells Better Farming.

And not just tomorrow, but for many years to come.

“Understand the risk. Sure, you may not get sick today, but if you get an exposure every year of a product, even if it’s minimal exposure, over time that can have a long-term, often even fatal health risk,” Gobeil says.

“A lot of these products are carcinogenetic – for example, they can cause serious issues for your lungs, respiratory and cardiac system,” Gobeil explains. “It’s not a big secret that a lot of farmers have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. A lot of the chemicals that farmers are using can contribute to that condition.”

The agricultural community “needs to be proactive about it instead of reactive. Once you have a condition like that, it’s not repairable, unfortunately. Even if it takes an extra five minutes to do the task, it’s time well spent and invested,” he adds.

Training and Certification

“Any farmer who wants to purchase and use Restricted and Commercial pesticides on their farm must be certified with the full Grower Pesticide Safety Course,” Lynn Van Maanen tells Better Farming. She’s the project co-ordinator for the Ontario Pesticide Education Program at the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus. “The certificate is good for five years.”

When a certified individual “purchases that pesticide, they become responsible for all of the use of that pesticide. So, ideally that person would also be the user of that pesticide because they are responsible for what happens with the use of that product,” she explains. Ideally, anyone who handles pesticides at all should be certified through the full course. There is also an opportunity to be trained as a Farmer Assistant.

“A Farmer Assistant is trained in how to handle and apply pesticides safely, but they don’t have the qualification which allows them to purchase a pesticide,” Van Maanen says. “A Farmer Assistant can work under the supervision of a person who has passed the Grower Pesticide Safety Course, and the person who has the certification can supervise up to three Farmer Assistants at one time.”

When supervising, the fully certified person must be near enough to where the Farmer Assistants are working to respond quickly in case of emergencies.

The person picking up and transporting product from a retailer does not need certification, “but again the person who bought it is still responsible for whatever happens to that pesticide, so the person picking it up should be well aware of how to transport it safely,” Van Maanen says.

Farmer Assistants can be trained by attending a Grower Pesticide Safety Course and learn the content but don’t take the test.

However, “since COVID, the more common way that Farmer Assistants are being trained is by an On-Farm Instructor at the farm where they work,” Van Maanen says. “An On-Farm Instructor is a certified grower, someone who’s taken and passed the Grower Pesticide Safety Course, and in addition they have taken a half-day On-Farm Instructor course.”

Training staff on site at their workplaces can be very effective, because it provides opportunities for practical demonstrations with the exact tools workers will be using.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the online Grower Pesticide Safety Course has become more popular.

The online version “covers all the same material that a person would get if they came to the in-person full day course,” Van Maanen says. An added benefit is that “it’s asynchronous, so they don’t have to be on for the whole course in one sitting, they can do it at their own pace – whatever’s convenient for them.”

Safety Reminders

In general, producers can work safely by “taking a slow down to speed up kind of approach – to stop, think and act,” Gobeil says. “It’s a matter of really understanding your task at hand, the product you’re using, what equipment you’re supposed to be using and if there is an emergency you have to know how to respond.”

person in protective equipment handling chemicals
    leaf/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

To do that, it’s important to “read the label,” Van Maanen says. “If you’re looking for the answer to a question, the answer is on the label. Don’t just read the first page of the label, but actually flip through all the pages and read the parts that you need to know.”

Emmott agrees.

“The label is the law and those need to be followed stringently,” he says.

As a helpful tool, product labels are available electronically through the Pesticide Label Search by Health Canada.

After reading product labels and safety information, you can make a game plan even before the season begins, Emmott says.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he says. Planning when you’ll be using what products and which protective equipment can help cover all the bases.

close up of sprayer
    Oleksandr Yuchynskyi/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“It’s easy to get all the steps right on the first day of spraying,” Emmott says. However, later in the season when things are more exhausting, hectic, and farmers are overworked, “that’s when mistakes can really happen.”

Safety is paramount for the person handling, mixing and applying pesticides. They should be wearing “proper protective equipment including goggles, gloves, clothing and footwear,” he explains.

It’s a good idea to “have the emergency equipment available as well,” Gobeil adds. An example would be an eye wash station.

Growers should ensure they are aware of and using the correct protective equipment.

“For example, the safety data sheet may say ‘use an air purifying respirator.’ Well, that is not a dust mask,” Gobeil explains.

pair of gloves
    Van Maanen photo

Chemical resistant gloves, not just latex gloves, is another example, Van Maanen says.

She suggests making sure extra gloves are available in places like workstations and your farm vehicle.

“Always wash your hands after you’ve touched anything,” she adds.

Finally, it can be helpful to tell someone else your game plan for the day in case of emergency.

“If you’re handling pesticides, tell others where you’re going to be, what you’re going to be doing and how long it might be,” Van Maanen says.


In addition to the importance of operator safety, people who work with pesticides must also keep the safety of those around them top-of-mind, particularly as suburban sprawl expands and they may be farming adjacent to more populated areas, Emmott says.

That stewardship involves “making sure the product we’re applying is going where we want it to go and is not going to put anybody at any risk,” he explains. Scientists determine the appropriate buffer strips, wind speeds, nozzle types, droplet sizes and water volume to control drift and coverage.

“All this is done with an extraordinary amount of research and development before these products come to market, to ensure that we’re optimizing the product and also the safety,” Emmott says. That’s why it is important for farmers to follow label directions.

“This is our social licence; this is why we get to do what we do, because we approach safety professionally, properly and seriously,” he explains. “We try to mitigate every risk that we can, and that is why the public allows us to do what we do, because our aim is to do things right and to gain and maintain the confidence of the public.”

Producers may also choose to chat with non-farming neighbours about the safety of the products they are using on the farm.

“Some products are applied with up to 20 gallons of water per acre and understandably people who don’t farm might think that these crops are getting doused in chemical,” Emmott says. However, those products may have as little as two to three grams of the active ingredient per acre, which can help people understand the reality of the safe use of pesticides.

Producers can explain that the farm “is our livelihood, a lot of us are hoping this will be our future generations’ livelihood as well, and we want to make sure we protect it,” Emmott says.

Preserving that social licence is another reason all farm workers need to take safety seriously.

“All it takes nowadays is a 10-second video to go viral and the industry’s reputation could be destroyed really fast.” BF

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