Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 13, Issue 1 - June, 2020


Study of Pesticide Applicator Education Reveals Worker Learning Preferences

Mayes, I.A., Extension Educator Horticulture & Small Farms, University of Idaho Extension, Latah County
Holyoke, L.B., Associate Professor, University of Idaho, College of Education


We present findings from a qualitative research study on pesticide applicator safety education and learning in Idaho. The purpose of the study was to illuminate learning components and approaches that may lead to improved safety in the use of pesticides. Applicators shared problems they faced that may be solved through education programs, identified preferred learning topics being taught and others not covered in current trainings. Applicators also revealed topics and concepts that may support workers in implementing safety measures and enhance future job performance, such as training in decision-making and how to improve the work environment.


A major problem in pesticide use is the potential for contamination and poisoning of people and the environment. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates physicians diagnose 10,000 – 20,000 pesticide poisonings in the agricultural sector each year (2018). Mishandling and overuse of pesticides has a potential cumulative, long-term effect on human health and is not necessarily apparent within a short time frame or on a small-scale (Mayes, 2019). Pesticide applicators and workers may suffer chronic health effects such as “respiratory problems, memory disorders, dermatologic conditions, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, miscarriages, and birth defects” (McCauley, et al., 2006, p. 953). Parkinson’s disease and thyroid disease have also been linked to pesticide exposure in farm workers (Pouchieu et al., 2018; Lerro et al., 2018).

Developing a better understanding of pesticide safety and education in Idaho was one goal of this study. Concepts in this paper, arising from the study, can be used to inform educational programs for pesticide applicators and workers in Idaho and other states. Idaho ranks 23rd in number of acres (3.5 million on 10,150 farms) treated with fertilizers and chemicals (NASS, USDA, 2017). Idaho has approximately 8,000 licensed applicators who spray in the agricultural sector as well as in urban and suburban settings. NASS, USDA has documented nearly 254 million agricultural acres which are treated annually nationwide (USDA NASS 2017). The implications for pesticide education on a national scale are significant, with an estimate of over 100,000 licensed applicators being potentially affected. University extension programs play an essential role by providing many trainings to these workers.



This qualitative study included three data collection strategies, a survey, focus groups and one-on-one interviews. A survey was offered to participants via paper during pesticide trainings and could also be accessed online for a two-month period. The survey was designed for licensed pesticide applicators to identify their learning preferences and gather contextual demographics. Survey and focus group participants were recruited during wintertime trainings that applicators attended to acquire the necessary credits to maintain their pesticide applicator license. This method of convenience sampling, also called purposive sampling, can be used in qualitative research when a subgroup of the general population is the target to identify context and typical cases (Savin-Baden & Major, 2013). The survey was intended to elicit thoughts from applicators, but was not designed to be statistically significant.

Four focus group interviews were held with a total of 24 pesticide applicators throughout regions of Idaho: Northern, Eastern, and Southern Idaho. Focus groups are useful in qualitative data collection to help identify a range of opinions that may be held by a group of people (Krueger & Casey, 2015). The focus group interviews were used to elaborate perspectives of applicators about how they preferred to learn about pesticides and related safety issues. The participants were asked to complete a paper survey prior to the group discussion. Their responses were combined with the online survey responses.

Ten one-on-one interviews were conducted with experts such as agronomists, toxicologists, educators, former farm workers, and agency personnel. Interviews took place either in person or via telephone. Interview participants were selected for their role in pesticide education, also using purposive sampling. The interviewees were not asked to respond to the survey. Semi-structured one-on-one interviews were conducted to reach theoretical saturation of data categories. Transcripts from the focus groups and individual interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Using grounded theory constant comparative method, data was coded through an iterative process in various stages: initial hand coding, open coding, incident coding, focused coding, and axial coding (Charmaz, 2014).



Study participants, including applicators shared personal learning preferences (teaching methods used by educators), topics they would like to learn more about, and concerns regarding what the public understands about the use of pesticides.

Licensed pesticide applicators were contacted at trainings and via email to take a survey either on paper or online. The survey is not considered statistically significant, but was issued to collect contextual information about the target group. Of 58 survey respondents, 86% were male, 14% female. Most applicators were aged 46 – 65 (45%). More than 50% made over $45,000 per year in income. Fifty respondents identified their race, 96% as Caucasian and 4% Hispanic. Hispanic workers are more widely represented in the group of unlicensed pesticide handlers and other farm workers in Idaho. An unlicensed handler may legally work with pesticides under an applicator who is licensed. Several trainings are targeted to unlicensed pesticide workers, with some offered in Spanish. 


Preferred Learning Topics

Applicators were queried about pesticide topics they valued, especially regarding safety (Table 1). Eight topics were suggested in the survey based on theoretical sampling as well as an “other” open-ended question where applicators could offer ideas for possible training topics. Survey response results are ordered from most to least frequent. The top three responses were knowledge of the product, reading a pesticide label, and knowledge of safety procedures.



Table 1. Survey Responses Regarding Preferred Topics (Mayes, 2019)

Survey Question: Regarding pesticide safety, what are your most valued topics? (select any that apply)


Survey Responses

No. of Responses

% of Total

Knowledge of the product



Reading a pesticide label



Knowledge of safety procedures



Protecting skin from exposure



Keeping up-to-date with new products



Emergency response



Unsafe working conditions



Preventing inhalation of fumes








When applicators were asked what topics were presented at trainings their responses included PPE, laws and labels, calibration, and how to dress for safety. Applicators requested education about pest resistance management, symptoms of exposure, and understanding application rates. There was agreement for recommended changes in trainings such as more engaging presentations, new material, and matching PPE material to specific chemicals. A shared critique was that training would be more useful if it was organized for specific license types.

Applicators expressed desire to know more about each type of chemical they use in relation to PPE that may prevent exposure. They also requested information linked to possible illnesses and long-term effects due to exposure. Table 2 details what applicators wanted to learn about different chemicals, educational components, and learning methods.


Preferred Learning Approaches

Teaching methods identified as effective included hands-on activities, use of real-life examples and stories, as well as guidance from others. When discussing how applicators like to learn, nearly everyone said they prefer a hands-on method. Educators interviewed for the study also favored teaching using hands-on activities, which is mostly cost prohibitive. While the majority of trainings involve PowerPoint presentations, only one applicator mentioned this as part of his preferred learning method, stating he liked “a combination of hands-on and visual.”

Ideas shared for training in focus groups and one-on-one interviews: before and after method, summary cards, case study presentations, and practicing emergency scenarios.



Table 2. Chemical Topics, Components, and Approaches for Future Trainings Requested by Applicators (Mayes, 2019)


Chemical Group

Specific Educational Components

Requested Methods

Organophosphates (insecticide)

  • Additional PPE that would help the applicator further reduce exposure, beyond the minimum PPE
  • Methods of exposure
  • Short-term symptoms from exposure
  • Long-term symptoms
  • Illnesses that affect applicators
  • Hands-on learning
  • Practice mixing and loading
  • Stations for training (like a trade show)
  • Research-based information
  • Podcasts
  • Radio announcements during the spraying season
  • Entertaining or engaging methods

Carbamates (insecticide)

Pyrethrins (insecticide)

Glyphosate (herbicide)

2,4-D (herbicide)


Risks from adjuvant (“sticker”) exposure

Include research-based information



Toxicologists consulted for this study cited a lack of research and information regarding adjuvants, commonly referred to as “sticker” by applicators. Adjuvants are chemical formulas added to pesticides that cause them to adhere to plant surfaces or encourage homogenization, for example. There is insufficient research on the possible synergistic human health effects of adjuvants and chemicals with some confusion regarding chemical formulas due to the wide array of products and combinations of chemicals, as well as chemical formulations often being proprietary (Mesnage & Antoniou, 2018). One story told was about an applicator whose backpack sprayer exploded and doused him in chemical. The applicator suffered health effects such as long-term sleep problems, but was unable to ascertain what chemicals were in the adjuvant because the formula fell under a proprietary category.

Based on analysis of the data, nuances in learning about PPE are warranted. One applicator put it this way:

"As far as safety goes, in general, what it says on any label as far as PPE requirements is what to wear in order to stay below the EPA’s threshold that they’ve dreamt up. What I’d like to see more of is, if you do want to wear additional PPE, what’s the ideal stuff to wear to minimize exposure?"

Other applicators also shared their curiosity about types of rubber that allow or prevent chemical exposure. Applicators were interested in learning about different types of PPE such as footwear, gloves, and aprons. New equipment should be designed when protection is not adequate. For example, applicators shared that backpack sprayers commonly leak down their backs.



In response to the need for additional education, educators within the state of Idaho have recently developed a series of online videos that applicators can watch at their convenience. Videos may well help applicators pass the initial licensing exam and learn about topics after they are licensed. Continuing education credits are not currently offered for educational videos in the state of Idaho. Some other states do offer online trainings that are more directly linked to certification and credits.

In evaluating extension programs, educators often attempt to ascertain whether attendees will (or later if they have) implemented new measures. Providing mechanisms for implementing new skills and tracking changes in behavior helps evaluate program impact (McCauley et al., 2006). Goal setting sessions and a tracking system could help both applicators and educators see how programs are having an impact. Applicators expressed an understanding that extension provides community education programs and offered suggestions for those trainings.


Teaching Methods

An idea for hands-on learning is to employ a before-and-after method: to have applicators practice mixing and loading with a harmless chemical that would show up afterwards with a black light. After applicators mix and load, they could see if any chemical landed on their skin. This educational method could be done with and without personal protective equipment (PPE) so workers could see the difference.

Using summary cards that would provide a succinct place to look for key information when mixing, loading, calibrating nozzle heads (volume of water released) and other aspects of spraying pesticides was suggested by several applicators. Summary cards could be incorporated as a part of a hands-on teaching method. Summary cards could be created for specific chemicals used by applicators.

Another suggestion is to use case study presentations about stories of exposure incidents. A presenter would begin presenting a scenario and stop part way through a case to ask the learners what they would do in the situation. After discussing the case, the presenter would tell them what actually happened.

Another helpful idea would be practicing emergency scenarios. Exposure can lead to immediate impaired judgment because of chemical absorption and because of panic. If an applicator has practiced what to do in an emergency, they are more likely to be able to implement corrective action for themselves or for someone else.


Topics for Future Trainings

In addition to stated requests, data analysis revealed topics and concepts that may support workers such as implementing additional safety measures in the future, decision-making training, and improving the social and physical work environment. Current trainings cover only some of these topics. Applicators who participated in the survey and focus groups exhibited a desire to learn and improve their work performance, in part, to reduce accidents and exposures.

Applicators experience various decision-making situations relating to pesticide use and safety. On occasion, they are faced with two negative alternatives, or a double-bind. A double-bind is “a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action” ( If an applicator is exposed to a chemical, but did not follow instructions on the label, they might not want to disclose this information. Further, they may avoid going to a doctor or withhold information from a doctor about an exposure incident. Labels can be confusing or hard to follow, which only adds complications to situations and in turn increase chances of exposure incidents. Sometimes applicators feel the need to complete a job, even if the wind conditions, temperature, or humidity are not at the right levels according to the label. Training could be developed to help applicators when faced with a double-bind situation and other types of complicated decision-making under pressure.

Notifying applicators about new trainings designed using their input could help support applicator efficacy. Current initial pre-licensing trainings cover different groups of pesticides such as herbicides, insecticides, etc., but these categories are broad compared to chemical groups, which require specific knowledge for handling.


Potential Concepts for Extension Programming

Issues that applicators face and are concerned about could be addressed through new or revised extension programming. For example, applicators want the public to be better educated about pesticides. One reason for this request is so members of the public are more careful with chemicals around homes and lawns, and follow pesticide label instructions when applicators are spraying on their property. Another facet of education for the public that applicators highlighted is an understanding of the role pesticides play in our current food system. Applicators indicated wanting to be appreciated for the work they do and be seen as acting responsibly with chemicals they use. A contingent of applicators participated in Leadership Idaho Agriculture, a program that trains working professionals in leadership and agricultural industry advocacy. They collectively shared that the program helps workers communicate to the public about agriculture.

Applicators expressed concerns about their long-term health. One solution could be to add a personal safety action plan component to trainings after presentations about various illnesses and exposure pathways. Following these presentations, applicators may be more motivated to think about their future health and be interested in developing their own goals for reducing exposure. Self-efficacy is an important component in adult learning (Knowles et al., 2012) and could be further supported among pesticide applicators using goal setting or other methods.

Several examples of education programming and evaluation methods from existing extension system programs may also be relevant, such as Master Gardener programs. Master Gardener training, an extension system model that started at Washington State University in the 1970s, is now offered nationwide. The program trains community volunteers in various horticultural topics and participants can receive a certificate at the end if they pass a test and serve as a volunteer and community education resource. This type of program could be offered to pesticide applicators and homeowners, for example a “Master Applicator” program that offers credits for licensing and community service opportunities including presentations to groups about pesticides and pesticide safety. Alternatively, consumer pesticide education could be expanded within existing master gardener programs.



Developing a better understanding of pesticide safety education in Idaho was one of the goals of this study. The social and physical work environment is the context within which applicators operate that affects the work they do and how they do their job. Knowledge and learning should include training designed with applicators at the center, meaning, their priorities and work environment should be given utmost consideration. The data revealed applicators’ priorities include desire for more information about chemicals, PPE, potential illness, and other topics, as well as the need for education about other issues they face. Extension educators have the potential to offer educational programs that can help pesticide applicators and workers learn additional methods for improving their own safety and health outcomes.


Literature Cited

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