Have you thought about the people who pick your fresh fruits and vegetables? Field work is hot and exhausting. But, not to be indelicate, what do you suppose field workers do when they are thirsty or need sanitation facilities? In most states no law requires that employers provide facilities for farm workers, as they must for other workers. Hundreds of thousands of farm workers lack access to clean drinking water or a toilet. This results in discomfort and humiliation for the workers and, as numerous uncontroverted studies document, a high incidence of infectious, parisitic and toxic disorders.
Workers spread disease among themselves and their children through dirty hands and shared water dippers. They accidentally ingest deadly pesticides picked up on their hands or blown on their skin or in their eyes. They contract bladder infections from infrequent urination. Flies and other insects swarm around the feces deposited on farmland. Infected waste seeps into groundwater supplies. Not a pretty picture. If sympathy for the farm workers and their children doesn't move you, remember that this contagion may be passed on to surrounding communities and to the larger consumer population.
It is shameful that for the 14 years farm workers have been petitioning for relief and courts have been ordering the government to impose standards, nothing has happened. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has excused its inaction with the bureaucratic equivalent of "the dog ate my homework." This year, after missing a court-ordered February deadline for issuing a standard, OSHA explained that it had lost expert staff and didn't have time to evaluate the record. Last week, with a final deadline approaching April 15, OSHA Director Robert Rowland told a House subcommittee he was still trying to decide whether to issue a standard at all.
Mr. Rowland's indecision is all the more curious in that, apart from the increasingly perfunctory objections of some farm organizations, there is really no controversy about the standard at all. Experts -- including two new ones recently retained by OSHA -- agree that farm-worker sanitation is a serious health problem and that a reasonable standard will alleviate it. Growers in states where standards are already enforced accept that the costs are not onerous and that decent sanitation pays off in higher worker morale and productivity. The Labor Department's newly designated secretary, William Brock, should end Mr. Rowland's indecision and issue the regulation without further delay.