Staying protected and safe when handling chemicals

FARMERS are exposed to some dangerous chemicals as part of their work. Handling, mixing and applying chemicals for cropping and livestock can be made safer by having an awareness of the dangers and the right equipment.
Staying protected and safe when handling chemicals Staying protected and safe when handling chemicals Staying protected and safe when handling chemicals Staying protected and safe when handling chemicals Staying protected and safe when handling chemicals

Kristy Moroney

Personal protective clothing for pesticides and associated farm chemicals is a necessity. It is a farmer’s responsibility to ensure their staff are properly protected at all times when using and handling chemicals around the farm.

There are hundreds of herbicides and pesticides on the market, most of which are far less toxic than chemicals 50 years ago, however there is no shortage of dangers from a vast number of chemicals used each year by thousands of farms.

According to the Department of Health it is extremely important that anyone using herbicide, pesticide or associated farm chemicals be protected, from both spray and vapour. The federal authority says appropriate protective clothing and equipment must be used to provide an effective barrier between the chemical and the body to prevent absorption.

Chemicals can be absorbed through inhalation, through the skin, ingestion or through eye contact; pesticides can also contaminate the surrounding air, water and food.

Protective clothing and equipment must prevent dermal (skin and eyes), respiratory (lungs) and oral (mouth) entry of chemicals into the body. 


Glyphosate, and glyphosate-based broad-spectrum herbicides are the most commonly used by broadacre croppers, however the widespread emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds has meant chemicals such as paraquat-diquat , 2,4-D or dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and MCPA are being used more frequently to combat the emergence of weed-resistant chemicals.

Generally all chemicals created to kill plant, vertebrate and invertebrate life have a level of toxicity and should be treated as dangerous poisons and should be kept well away from water sources and aquatic life such as dams during both use and storage.

Personal protective clothing recommended for herbicide use includes full body coverage along with glasses and a respirator. In most cases of accidental poisoning from pesticides, the skin is the most common entry point.

According to the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety, pesticide absorption rates range from 8.6 per cent to 100% depending on where you are exposed. The abdomen and genital area are the most susceptible to exposure.

Pesticide poisoning occurs either quickly or develops gradually over a long period of time. Long-term poisoning is considered more harmful as repeated exposure to harmful chemicals means permanent damage has been done by the time any poisoning symptoms are treated by doctors.

Different pesticides require different safety procedures. Information on storage and disposal should be taken seriously as the health effects, both short and long term, can lead to serious health complications.

According to a Kondinin Group survey, 33% of farmers reported experiencing ill effects from paraquat-diquat, other herbicides accounted for 26% and insecticides made up the remaining 9% of farm chemicals that are responsible for ill health effects.

Symptoms reported after farm chemical use included headaches (40%), nosebleeds (18%) and nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea (16%). Breathing difficulties, skin rashes, eye problems and generally feeling unwell were also reported as symptoms felt by farmers handling chemicals.

A selection of personal protective clothing should be made available to staff whenever pesticides are being applied or handled. Protective clothing should also be stored away from chemicals and cleaned thoroughly after use. 



Full-length overalls which button at the neck and wrists should be worn. Trouser cuffs should be worn outside boots.

Waterproof apron

PVC aprons are easy to wear and clean, they give good protection against spills and splashes when opening, mixing and decanting pesticides.


Footwear when handling chemicals should be rubber or PVC as untreated leather will absorb pesticides and eventually pass it on to the wearer’s skin. 

Only PVC boots in good condition should be worn. If the boots are damaged or cracked, chemical can soak into the material and be absorbed into the body through the feet. If chemical has soaked into the boots or they are cracked or damaged they must be replaced. 

Thorough cleaning of boots is very important and should be done properly. Boots should also be inspected regularly for any signs of damage or cracks.

PVC gloves

Waterproof gloves without a material lining are recommended as the pesticide can be absorbed by the cotton or fabric lining and then be absorbed by the skin in larger doses. Gauntlet-type PVC gloves are required. These are gloves which cover the arm to just below the elbow as well as covering the hand. Some types of gloves deteriorate quickly in contact with pesticides and must be checked regularly for cracks, especially between the fingers. Cracked gloves should be disposed of. 

Washable hat

A wide-brimmed hat will stop pesticide getting on to the operator’s hair and then into his/her body. The hat should be made of washable material so it can be cleaned easily after use.


Pesticide labels should be a guide for the user as to which type of respirator to use. It should be noted respirators using a pesticide cartridge are not effective against hydrogen cyanide, methyl bromide, fumigants or low-oxygen environments. Cartridges have an approximate life of 4 to 12 hours of continuous use. If they are stored with the pesticides, they may quickly lose their effectiveness due to the presence of chemical vapours. 

Respirators can be in the form of a half face respirator or a full face respirator that use replaceable canister, powered air-purifying respirator or agricultural hood or spray helmet.

Half face disposable masks provide some protection against small particles like those in mists, smokes, metal fumes and non-volatile dusts. Disposable masks are not suitable for applying liquids due to the danger of the chemicals being absorbed by the mask and transferred to the mouth and face.

Half face respirators cover the nose and mouth and are only effective with less than 0.1% concentration of pesticide in the air. Half face respirators should be used whenever handling open containers of pesticide, dust formulations, volatile liquids or fumigants – especially in poorly ventilated areas such as sheds. 

Seals can be tested by placing hands or a piece of plastic food wrap over the intakes and inhaling, the respirator should stick to the wearer’s face. Beards, chewing gum and some prescription glasses can interfere with the seal.

Full face respirators that cover the whole face provide full protection against pesticide concentration between 1-2% in the air. This is usually only the case when pouring or mixing pesticides in enclosed spaces or fumigating silos or glasshouses.

Half and full face respirators protect the user from pesticides but not from a lack of oxygen, in these cases supplied sources of air and breathing equipment are necessary.

Powered air purifying respirators blow filtered air into a face piece and separate out any harmful pesticide particles and vapour and are considered cooler and more comfortable by users due to the constant flow of air to the head and face. 

Most are powered by a battery pack strapped to user’s waist or back and are available in half face, full face masks, as a hood or protective helmet.

Hoods may be used to give total head protection while working in spray drift and work the same as half face respirator. A spray helmet is considered one of the best options for protection as they come complete with a small compressor that pumps fresh air to the wearer.

For added protection

Always carry at least 20L of water, soap and paper towelling with the spray outfit for washing hands, face and other areas of exposed skin, and especially the eyes.

Wash thoroughly with soap and water after mixing chemicals and before eating, drinking or smoking or after work. Barrier cream may be used on the hands but is not a protection against chemical penetration.


To make the most out of your protective equipment and to ensure it is fully functional when needed for use again it is recommended to maintain it after each use.

  • Remove respirator filters and set them aside
  • Wash the face piece in warm soap and water 
  • Valves can also be removed and washed as well, rinse well, dry with a clean cloth and leave to air out in a well ventilated area out of direct sun
  • The respirator should be kept in sealed plastic bag or unused lunch box away from direct sunlight
  • Wipe the outside surface of respirators but do not allow water to enter the filter
  • Activated charcoal also needs to be stored properly in a sealed container
  • Regularly check the one-way valves on all respirators to make sure they are still functioning
  • Before you use your equipment again it is recommended to check the face piece of the respirator is still soft, pliable and functioning. 
  • Disposable masks and clothing must be discarded immediately and not reused
  • Change and use filters according to the safety equipment manufacturer’s recommendations
  • Keep goggles and any headbands clean
  • Headbands should be cleaned by soaking them for two minutes in a mixture of 30mL of chlorine bleach in four litres of water then rinse thoroughly with water and allow to dry outside
  • Contaminated clothing should be changed daily or whenever it becomes damp with pesticides and washed separately while wearing gloves away from other laundry to avoid cross contamination
  • Read the label of any protective clothing for any specific instructions on laundering
  • It is important to discard any clothing that has become saturated with pesticide
  • With aerial applications farmers and workers need to take special precautions including changing their overalls at least once per shift
  • Gloves should be checked for tiny holes by filling gloves with water and squeezing


There are a range of air filters and air purifying units that protect drivers of vehicles involved in spraying. The filters are fitted to existing air conditioning units or can be complete airflow system that can be fixed to a window or cab. 

The units can be fan-operated with a series of filters that keep a driver’s air supply free of chemicals by supplying filtered clean air into a vehicle. Filters should be regularly maintained.


Make sure the Safety Data Sheet that comes with every pesticide, herbicide or bait is understood as well as any specific emergency procedures required for that chemical. Stop work immediately if experiencing chest pain, nausea, blurred vision, excess saliva or difficulty breathing.

It is recommended at least two people on any farm are trained in first aid. A good first aid plan and effective first aid techniques can greatly increase the outcome for the victim.

Have a tactical plan for every recognised crisis situation and be prepared with the correct local authority contact information including poisons information, ambulance or flying doctor.

First Aid kits should be located in handy locations in vehicles and in sheds and be fully stocked and ready to use. Kits should include a towel, clean clothing, an approved mask or mouthpiece for expired air resuscitation, a disposable eye wash bottle and eye wash solution, ipecac syrup, soap and a nail brush. 

Legal requirements for each state may be different and it is the responsibility of every farm owner to know what is required from a health and safety perspective.

Have a fresh tank of water nearby on a vehicle or in a shed for quick decontamination and washing down any spills.

Everyone who works with chemicals regularly including pesticides and herbicides should have a yearly appointment with their General Practitioner. People who use cholinesterase compounds need to be vigilant with testing the amount of cholinesterase in their blood as it can affect the nervous system.


The use of baits such as 1080 and Strychnine require permits from state government authorities and most states have a strict policy of demonstrating the use of baits before issuing licences.

For the safety of neighbour’s animals, most states require the user to inform surrounding properties in writing by letter, e-mail or fax at least 72 hours prior to baiting and warn anyone living on or visiting the property. 

Warning signs must be displayed during, and for at least one month after, baiting and placed at main entrances to the baited property and at other appropriate strategic points. 

As with any dangerous chemical it is important to use 1080 precisely as instructed on the label Directions for Use. 

The Western Australian Department of Agriculture recommends using appropriate personal protective equipment, understand the rate of lay, the methods of laying the bait and bait placement, and where baiting is to occur, including any exclusion zones. 

When handling oats and dried meat baits laced with 1080, impervious gloves and protective clothing should be worn. During the training undertaken when applying for baits, specific information relating to the product used will be given. 

Do not eat, drink or smoke when laying the baits as chemical could be ingested. When finished, wash down all surfaces and containers as well as gloves with clean water. Remove contaminated clothing and thoroughly wash them and hands.

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