California Considering Hand-Weeding Labor Ban

April 21, 2003 ( - The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is considering a request by worker advocates and labor unions to ban hand weeding in commercial agriculture.

If the request is adopted, it would be the first such ban in agriculture, according to a Los Angeles Times news report. Growers argue that hand weeding is vital to many of the state’s fruit and vegetable crops, especially organic produce, which they insist cannot be farmed with chemical herbicides.

Farm worker advocates claim that the current law banning short-handled hoes for pulling weeds and thinning crops didn’t address pulling weeds by hand or with a short knife. The current law was enacted because the bent position required was found to cause permanent back injury for many laborers.

That is why the labor groups are pushing Cal/OSHA to require that workers in the state to use tools at least four feet long to eliminate weeds. “Agriculture companies are just using hand weeding as a loophole to evade the long-standing ban on the use of short-handled tools,” Mike Meuter, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, told the Times. The foundation has joined the United Farm Workers of America and the California Labor Federation in urging reform.

Farmers acknowledge that maintaining crops is difficult and physically demanding work. But “hand weeding is essential to agriculture, just like hand harvesting,” Mike Webb of the Western Growers Assn., an Irvine-based agriculture trade group, told the Times. Losing the ability to hand weed their crops would mean increased use of chemical herbicides and smaller harvests – and profits – as tools could damage tightly spaced crops such as carrots, celery and lettuce, growers say.