Beyond polarization: using Q methodology to explore stakeholders’ views on pesticide use, and related risks for agricultural workers, in Washington State’s tree fruit industry

Abstract

Controversies in food and agriculture abound, with many portrayed as conflicts between polarized viewpoints. Framing such controversies as dichotomies, however, can at times obscure what might be a plurality of views and potential common ground on the subject. We used Q methodology to explore stakeholders’ views about pesticide safety, agricultural worker exposure, and human health concerns in the tree fruit industry of central Washington State. Using a purposive sample of English and Spanish-speaking agricultural workers, industry representatives, state agencies, educators, and advocates (n = 41), participants sorted 45 statements on pesticide use and perceived human safety risks in the tree fruit industry in 2011. We used PQMethod 2.33 statistical software program to identify viewpoints, based on differences between how participants sorted the statements. The results revealed three distinct viewpoints among 38 sorters that explained 52 percent of the variance. The viewpoints included the: (1) skeptics (n = 22) who expressed concern over the environmental and human health impacts of pesticide use; (2) acceptors (n = 10) who acknowledged inherent risks for using pesticides but saw the risks as known, small and manageable; and (3) incrementalists (n = 6) who prioritized opportunities to introduce human capital and technological improvements to increase agricultural worker safety. We then brought representatives with these different viewpoints together to analyze the results of the Q study, and to brainstorm mutually acceptable improvements to health and safety in tree fruit orchards. In describing and analyzing this case study, we argue that Q methodology can serve as one potentially effective tool for collaborative work, in this case facilitating a process of orchard safety improvements despite perceived stakeholder polarization.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Readers can email the corresponding author for a copy of the post-sort questionnaire.

  2. 2.

    Readers can email the corresponding author for a copy of the factor interpretation crib sheets.

  3. 3.

    Readers can email the corresponding author for a copy of the factor interpretation crib sheets showing these comparisons.

  4. 4.

    Particular thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this insight.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks go to Maureen Gullen for assistance in data analysis and representation for this study, to Diane Montgomery for assistance in identifying the most appropriate factor solution, to Jerry Shannon, Diane Montgomery, and Alice Julier for comments on an earlier draft of this paper, to four anonymous reviewers for invaluable feedback, and to the pesticide safety stakeholder working group for comments on the pesticide Q study results and analysis. This study was funded by CDC/NIOSH Award 5 U54 OH007544 to the University of Washington Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (with subcontract to Washington State University).

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Appendices

Appendix 1

Q sort distribution board

figurea

Appendix 2

Statement rankings by factor

Statements Factor 1 Factor 2 Factor 3
1. I worry that people don’t take the risks of pesticides seriously because they don’t understand the long-term effects of pesticides on their health 5 −3 5
2. I don’t think anybody really knows what all of these pesticides are doing to our environment 5 0 2
3. Unlike many people, I believe that if there is any possibility of a pesticide harming the environment or human health, that chemical shouldn’t be used even if it’s not yet absolutely proven scientifically to be harmful 1 −5 0
4. I am convinced that people are afraid of pesticides basically because they don’t know enough about the pesticides themselves 0 5 0
5. It frustrates me that the public simply does not understand how agriculture works today 0 5 −2
6. I don’t know why people get so worried about pesticide use in orchards—there are good systems in place for monitoring pesticide illness and they indicate really low levels of exposure −3 3 1
7. I don’t trust official assessments of pesticide health risks—they’re measured by exposure to a single chemical, but pesticides are typically used in formulations (mixed with other chemicals) 2 −3 −4
8. I’m not naïve enough to believe that all pesticides are safe 4 3 −4
9. I can tell by the odor whether or not a pesticide is dangerous −5 −5 −5
10. I believe that scientists receiving industry funding tend to be biased towards industry interests even in cases where the industry sponsor does not actively pressure the researcher 2 −4 −3
11. I don’t have any questions about which chemicals are safe and which are not—the science of pesticide safety is has been clearly studied −4 −1 −2
12. Many of the pesticides we use now are very targeted—they’re not broad-spectrum neurological toxins so short of being a fungus or bacteria, they’re not going to have much effect on you −3 4 0
13. I am tired of all the regulation around agricultural pesticides −3 −1 −2
14. I don’t think it makes sense to worry too much about pesticide drift—pesticides are so diluted by the time they’re used that they’re not going to hurt you −5 −4 −5
15. I’m all for workplace safety, but without pesticides, you just can’t produce the safe, nutritious, affordable food that consumers deserve −1 5 2
16. I worry about children’s exposure to pesticides (even in utero) because it can lower their IQ 4 −4 1
17. It frustrates me that literacy, cultural, time, and language barriers get in the way of appropriate pesticide safety training for workers 4 1 −5
18. No matter what people say, I know that pesticide drift is very common 2 3 −2
19. What pesticide handlers need to be safe in my opinion is more label information in Spanish 2 1 3
20. I think there should be a program whereby all pesticide applicators, when they go out to spray, are given refresher explanations on what chemicals they are using, what the labels say, and how they should be used 4 0 2
21. I know that pesticide applicators, because they’re spraying all the time, understand pesticide safety—but not everyone else knows what’s going on, and that can make things risky −1 0 3
22. It frustrates me to no end that the health dangers of pesticides are grossly overstated by politicians using the issue as a political vehicle −2 2 −1
23. In my experience, tree fruit workers receive plenty of pesticide safety training −2 1 −1
24. I feel very comfortable with how well pesticide handlers know how to read and follow pesticide labels −4 −2 2
25. I wish managers would do a better job of reminding pesticide handlers about maintaining a safe workplace 3 1 3
26. If there were clear and open communication within orchards, pesticide safety would be less of an issue 0 2 4
27. I think growers and managers are generally good listeners, responsive to their workers’ concerns—but workers have to be willing to talk to them if they are worried −1 3 3
28. What I think supervisors need is training in human resource management—how to be more effective and more efficient, with the skills and abilities to communicate things to their employees 3 4 5
29. I think a big problem in the system is that pesticide safety varies so much by orchard—some enforce safety procedures really well and implement a culture of safety while others don’t 5 4 1
30. I hate when pesticide handlers don’t get enough time to decontaminate personal protective equipment 3 −1 −3
31. To me it’s simple—as long as people follow regulations and don’t go into sprayed blocks, there is no safety risk −2 −2 −4
32. In my opinion, the tree fruit industry overprotects its workers −5 −3 −5
33. I can hardly believe how much safer orchards are now than they were 5–10 years ago 0 5 4
34. For me, industry self-regulation is the best way to addressing environmental problems like pesticide safety −5 0 −1
35. To me, pesticide handling is only risky when applicators don’t wear the proper personal protective equipment −3 0 4
36. I don’t understand why pesticides that can be replaced by less toxic alternatives are still registered 1 −5 0
37. I don’t think that growers would train workers on pesticide safety unless it were regulated 3 −2 −1
38. In my experience, posting signs for re-entry intervals is not effective—many places keep their signs up all year, so you can’t rely on them 1 2 1
39. I’m tired of this overwhelming focus on pesticide safety—there are simply way more pressing safety issues in orchards today −2 −1 −3
40. I trust that the USDA and EPA wouldn’t allow pesticides to be used that aren’t safe for humans −4 2 5
41. I believe there’s inherent risk involved in working with pesticides, no matter what precautions are taken 5 4 −3
42. Improving pesticide safety is simple—all it needs is for the tree fruit industry to step up and put some money behind it −1 −5 5
43. I believe that true safety comes not from worker protections but from engineering workers out of the loop 0 −4 4
44. I’d like growers to spray less toxic pesticides, but the cost of them is getting out of control, especially for family farmers 1 −2 0
45. To me, pesticide safety has become a non-issue—employers already have to address it for food safety certification −4 −3 −4

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Lehrer, N., Sneegas, G. Beyond polarization: using Q methodology to explore stakeholders’ views on pesticide use, and related risks for agricultural workers, in Washington State’s tree fruit industry. Agric Hum Values 35, 131–147 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9810-z

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Keywords

  • Q methodology
  • Pesticide safety
  • Polarization
  • Stakeholders