5 Where are the cowboys?

Preventing access to pesticide products by those that aren't qualified to use them is one of the best ways to ensure high standards, for both the image of our industry and for the environment

JimmyStewart.jpgAs an industry, we use pesticides as part of our tool box to help solve the problems Mother Nature poses us. Our use of these tools, and the way they are supplied to us, is very well regulated. The laws that govern our use of these tools set the standard that the European Union used as a template for the old EU directive (91/414/EEC) and the new sustainable use directive. The system established has been very successful. The statutory code of practice for using pesticide products was awarded the crystal mark from the Plain English Society. The principles enshrined in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 and the Control Of Pesticides Regulations 1986 are simple. These acts make sure we only get products that are effective, safe and humane.

People advising on the sale and use of these products must be competent to do so - BASIS certification - and people that apply them must be competent to use them too under the spray certification (NPTC) scheme. This covers all aspects to the chain from the lab bench, where new active ingredients are conceived and created, to the grass itself. This system has worked.

In the UK, we have the highest standards of professionalism and qualification that I am aware of anywhere. If the EU are copying us, then there must be merit in what we have created and the standards we have achieved.

In recent years, the drive to improve the way we use our plant protection products has been on a voluntary basis. Government has communicated that the potential impact on the wider environment needs to be reduced, and has indicated that this would be best achieved through voluntary measures and through the pursuit of a more professional approach. As an industry we responded and have delivered. The voluntary initiative, the register of spray operators - NRoSO - has got great support from those of us that use products to create the playing surfaces and preserve the landscape we enjoy. The supply chain that serves us has responded too - by phasing in a requirement, for those that use professional products, to prove they are qualified to do so before they can receive them.

Preventing access to pesticide products by those that aren't qualified to use them is one of the best ways to ensure high standards for both the image of our industry and for the environment. To put it plainly, if those that aren't qualified, and don't want to be, cant get hold of the material they need, they can't use it to cause harm. You wouldn't try to drive a car unless you were first taught to do so, would you?

There are those out there though that operate 'under the radar', and do not see why the era of progress and higher standards should include them. So, if this 'under the radar' minority are taking no notice of the rules, aren't qualified, don't keep spray records, and ask casual staff to spray pesticides as part of other tasks without training them - who picks up on this? Who safeguards the staff who don't know they need to be trained, may not even speak English as a first language and struggle to understand the label of a pesticide? Who does the enforcement of product use, qualification and standards fall to? Well, this all depends.

There is a gap in our streamlined and simple system that causes concern to me, and other colleagues within our industry. There seems to be no immediate solution, and those that are responsible seem to have no appetite to pursue the cause.

This small, but pressing issue is enforcement of the regulations and standards set in our legislation. If I asked you "who is responsible for enforcement of these standards?" you would do well to answer. It could be the Health And Safety Executive. It could be the Trading Standards authorities. It could be the Environment Agency, or the Chemical Registration Directorate (who used to be PSD). It might even be the police.

As you can tell, this is a diverse selection of government executive agencies. Who is responsible for what all depends on what the misdemeanor was, who, or what, was damaged and where it was. Here is a good example that is clear.

Through poor maintenance and lack of training a pesticide spillage occurred that caused contamination of a stream or river. It is inevitable that, if this happened, considerable harm would be caused to the life within that stream. As the damage caused to the contents of the stream falls within the remit of the Environment Agency, they are the people who will pick up the baton and pursue the case. They are large, well resourced, and have a good track record in bringing cases like this to court and successfully prosecuting those who were responsible for such spillages.

If, for example, it is a person who is harmed, being overcome by vapor or suffering skin irritation as part of their job, it will be the Health & Safety Executive that investigates. The responsibility of the employer and employee for safety at work is clear, and so are the responsibilities of the HSE.

The problem comes when there are rule breaches that are common, but not regarded as serious. It's when there is no direct harm or damage that occurs that problems stay 'under the radar', and attract no attention from those in authority. It is this type of rule breach that is so insidious.

Lack of detection, and lack of action to correct behaviour that breaks the rules and is not within the spirit of the legislation, is a serious problem. Who is committing this sort of rule breaking? Where are they? What do they do? What's being done about them? Here, we have the meat of the problem.

There are lots of people that use herbicides as part of their routine business. These range from (and are not limited to) farmers, market gardeners, nurseries, forestry managers, groundsmen, greenkeepers, local authorities, weed control companies, grounds maintenance and lawn care companies, infrastructure management companies and so on.

There is one thing that separates the last four from the first seven. They are mobile, have no fixed point of delivery, cover a large area, and could have several staff, many of whom are likely to be seasonal. If they were not as scrupulous as they should be, and didn't wish to burden themselves with the overheads that training and qualifications present, then they can just get away with it. And they do. Why? Because there is no one out there to check up on them. They operate in a consequence free environment. They are not big enough to be noticed and, as they never do much harm, they never attract the attention of those that can bring them to book, and bring the perception of the rest of us down to their level.

So, this brings me on to what is enforcement. If the people who operate off the radar were found out, what would happen? I made some enquiries at the Chemical Regulation Directorate ( CRD ) and have to say they were really very helpful. They were quick to let me have some good information on what they have done, in recent years, to pursue rule breakers that fall within their remit, but it is clear that they have a role that doesn't have the resource to pursue all areas with the vigour most of us would like. Their approach is one that is proportional and measured. But, is it enough?

The latest figures they have are for 2008. Below is a breakdown of the areas concerned and the action taken. These figures cover all pesticide use in farming, horticulture and amenity. The total number of cases dealt with was sixty six. The non crop sector accounts for approximately 5% of total UK pesticide sales.
The breakdown of action taken shows that the focus is clearly on the commercial side of the trade - sale of and making sure that claims of what a product will achieve, what it is and its provenance are legitimate. CRD is involved in prosecution of some cases - though these take years to resolve, and several are ongoing.

It is reassuring that action has been taken against those that are miss-selling or supplying products that contravene the regulations. However, one area that is deserving of far more attention is misuse.

When a product is used by those that are not qualified (again think of driving a car without a licence) or a product is used for a purpose it is not approved for - this is when real harm to both people and the environment can be caused. If no one is looking for this, how is it going to be detected?

So, to fill the vacuum, that those who operate off the radar exist in, what needs to happen? If this gap in professionalism is to be filled, so that the industry approach to high standards is complete, then those who are off the radar need to become visible.

What is the best approach?

Legislate? That wouldn't work - we already have two excellent acts of parliament and a great code of practice that has had no effect on them. Legislation is only as good as the agency that enforces it so, without any resources to take action, no action can be taken.

Voluntary? Nope - that won't work either. They choose to operate 'under the radar' so asking them not too won't have much impact.

The approach that needs to be taken here has two parts. First is the client and second is the culture. The real police of the void, that the unqualified work in, are the people that employ them. They need to make sure that people undertaking work as part of a contract actually have the credentials and qualifications needed to perform the task they are given.

Without this, they are not competent to work - and should be prevented from doing so until they are. To achieve this, effective inspection and quality management is needed. If there are no resources to do this, or no desire, then there are good schemes out there that cover this - Amenity Assured is a leading example.

If proper scrutiny is applied then there is nowhere else to go other then get qualified and conform to the legislation. The culture is harder to change.

A culture of responsibility needs to be adopted and followed, so that saving money and doing weed control on the cheap is treated with suspicion. One thing is sure, if we can change the culture we can close the gap. Prevent product getting to those that aren't qualified. Impose effective quality management and inspections. Make quality count.

Paul Cawood, Business Development Manager, Languard Ltd

Image copyright: Paramount Pictures

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