Today’s Advisor reports on recent guidance issued by two national occupational safety organizations for dealing with green tobacco sickness in workers.
Dehydration, dizziness, headaches, and vomiting are just a few of the symptoms of nicotine poisoning, also known as green tobacco sickness (GTS). Workers who plant, cultivate, and harvest tobacco are particularly at risk. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez recently announced the release of a recommended practices bulletin, “Green Tobacco Sickness,” with guidance on reducing the hazards for tobacco workers.
In recent years, the tobacco industry has undertaken voluntary efforts to curtail child labor in tobacco farming and increase protections for young workers. The department has collaborated also with state agencies, growers, farmers, manufacturers, and others to increase education, training, and protections for tobacco workers.
“The best way to protect people from on-the-job hazards is to prevent those hazards in the first place, and this bulletin outlines commonsense steps to reduce nicotine exposure and prevent heat illness,” said Perez. “It’s important that we continue to work with a wide array of stakeholders in order to find solutions that protect all workers.”
Issued jointly by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the bulletin identifies serious health hazards related to work in tobacco fields and steps employers can take to protect the health of farmworkers. It also identifies vulnerable workers, including children and adolescents, who may be more sensitive to chemical exposure and more likely to suffer from GTS, and who may suffer more serious health consequences than adults. The bulletin is available in English and Spanish.
Approximately 90 percent of domestic tobacco production occurs in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, the latter of which accounts for nearly half of all production. The department is committed to working with these states to protect the health and safety of young agricultural workers, generally, including on tobacco farms.
Both OSHA and the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) have conducted outreach and education in tobacco-producing states to highlight agricultural health and safety risks. These efforts include training sessions, grants, online and print publications, and an extensive outreach and compliance assistance program. In February, WHD Administrator David Weil, PhD, and OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, PhD, met with tobacco manufacturers and buyers in North Carolina to discuss labor law compliance throughout the tobacco supply chain. They also met with worker advocates and representatives to discuss recommendations for improving working conditions in the industry.
Symptoms of GTS include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and cramps. Although absorption of nicotine into the bloodstream is the cause of GTS, symptoms might not occur for several hours after nicotine overexposure, so workers should be aware of the symptoms to watch for when they are off the job. Nicotine absorption is more likely when it dissolves into rainwater, dew, and sweat, so use extra caution during rainy or hot conditions.
Here are some of the recommendations from the bulletin:
Provide training to each worker on how to use personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and water-resistant clothing, to prevent GTS. Training should include information about how clothing can be used as PPE and how some clothing may no longer provide adequate protection if it becomes wet.
Train workers to recognize the signs and symptoms of GTS and to alert supervisors if they develop symptoms or notice any other workers exhibiting symptoms.
Train supervisors to ensure that any worker with GTS symptoms immediately drinks water and rests in the shade, in addition to receiving medical attention if necessary.
Train workers to wash with soap and water immediately after working in order to reduce exposure to nicotine. Washing can reduce the amount of nicotine on the skin by 96 percent.