Pesticide Safety: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

man in personal protective equipment spraying pesticides on the farm

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Pesticide Safety: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

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man in personal protective equipment spraying pesticides on the farm

When you ride a bike, you put on a helmet to protect your head … that’s a no-brainer.

Likewise, when you get into a car, it is almost automatic to reach for the seat belt and strap in … another no-brainer.

The bike helmet and seatbelt are examples of personal protective equipment, or PPE. They often seem routine but are nonetheless essential for our protection. Obviously, if you are in an accident, you will be grateful that you were protected by PPE. 

How about when you use pesticides? Is wearing PPE when you use a pesticide a no-brainer?

Do you need PPE when you use pesticides? 

The simple answer is yes, and here are some major reasons why one must use PPE when handling or applying pesticides. Consider the following:

  • A pesticide is a toxic substance intentionally released into our environment for the purpose of killing living things. In other words, pesticides are poisons that need to be handled carefully.
  • All pesticides in sufficient amounts can be toxic to the person exposed to them.
  • The potential hazard of a pesticide to an individual depends upon the toxicity of the pesticide and the amount of exposure one has had to it.

Toxicity of pesticides

Toxicity is a relative measure that estimates the harmful effects of a pesticide on humans. 

Any chemical substance is toxic if absorbed in excessive amounts. Therefore, the poisonous effect of a chemical substance depends on the amount consumed or absorbed. For example, if enough table salt is consumed at one time, it would be toxic.

All pesticides and adjuvants in sufficient amounts can be toxic. However, there are great ranges in the level of toxicity among different pesticides. 

The toxicity value of a pesticide is a relative measure that is derived from laboratory studies with test animals (such as mice, rats, and rabbits) to estimate toxic effects on humans or other animals. 

How are toxic effects of pesticides on humans determined?

  • The Association of American Pesticide Control Officials (AAPCO) formulated and adopted regulatory principles relating to the determination of highly toxic pesticides.
  • Laboratory tests on pesticide toxicity are categorized by route of entry to indicate:
    • Oral toxicity – where test animals ingested pesticides.
    • Toxicity on inhalation – where test animals were exposed to pesticide vapor.
    • Toxicity by skin absorption – where the bare skin of test animals was in continuous contact  with pesticide for 24 hours. 

Hazard of pesticide use

Hazard is a function of toxicity and exposure, where: 

  • Toxicity is the inherent capability of the substance to result in injury or death. 
  • Exposure is simply how long one has been in an area where a pesticide was applied.

Sometimes the hazard might be specific, as posing a problem to humans or animals, or in other instances causing injury to some plants.

Pesticide users should be concerned with the hazard associated exposure as well as with toxicity of the pesticide itself.

Classifying pesticides based on toxicity

All pesticide products in the market are individually evaluated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

The EPA uses data on pesticide toxicity and route of entry (mouth, skin, lungs, or eyes) as a reference for the development of signal words. 

The signal words provide an indication of what type of PPE one must use to avoid pesticide exposure.

  • Ultimately, the hazard signal word that appears on a pesticide label is either DANGER, WARNING, or CAUTION
    1. DANGER – indicates the pesticide product is highly toxic by more than one route of exposure. 

It may be corrosive, causing irreversible damage to the skin or eyes. 

Alternatively, it may be highly toxic if injested, absorbed through the skin, or inhaled. If this is the case, then the word “POISON” must also be included in red letters on the front panel of the product label.

The symbol of the skull with crossbones must appear on the label of highly toxic pesticides along with the words DANGER – POISON.

  1. WARNING – indicates the pesticide product is moderately toxic if ingested, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or it causes moderate eye or skin irritation.
  2. CAUTION – products with this signal word are lower in toxicity. A “CAUTION” label means the pesticide product is slightly toxic if eaten, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or it causes slight eye or skin irritation.

When should one use PPE?

Any time you handle a pesticide, consider using equipment (PPE) that protects the body from contact with pesticide. 

The law requires pesticide users to follow all PPE instructions on the pesticide label. Using additional PPE than what is listed on the pesticide label may be a good idea in some situations.

To reduce the risk of exposure to pesticide, PPE must be worn during mixing, loading, and application of pesticide.

What type of PPE should one wear to limit exposure to a pesticide?

There are three ways that toxic chemicals may enter the human body. The routes of entry include:

  1. Oral exposure – through the mouth by swallowing.
  2. Dermal exposure – absorption through the skin and eyes
  3. Inhalation or respiratory exposure – absorption by breathing.

Protective measures to minimize oral exposure:

  • Check the label for instructions or warnings regarding oral exposure.
  • Never eat or drink while applying pesticides.
  • Wash thoroughly with soap and water before eating or drinking.
  • Do not touch lips to contaminated objects or surfaces.
  • Do not wipe mouth with hands, forearm, or clothing when using pesticides.
  • Do not expose food containers, beverage cups, or drinking vessels to pesticides.
  • If the pesticide label indicates a high danger of oral ingestion, it is advisable to wear a full-face plastic shield or mask when there is a possibility of pesticide splashing.

Protective measures to minimize dermal exposure:

  • Observe all recommended protective measures specifically mentioned on the pesticide label.
  • Cover up before exposure, not after.
  • For any pesticide handling task, wear at least a long-sleeved shirt, long-legged pants, and close-toed shoes.
  • Efforts should be made to protect the hair, skin around the head, eyes, and neck from pesticides.
  • Natural rubber gloves, at least 14 mL thick, should be used when handling pesticides that are readily absorbed through the skin.
  • Waterproof boots or other footgear should be worn during most types of pesticide application.
  • Eye protection is often needed when measuring or mixing pesticide concentrates, as well as when spray drift might be a problem. Protective shields or goggles should be used whenever there is a chance of a pesticide coming into contact with the eyes.

Protective measures to minimize inhalation or respiratory exposure:

  • Respiratory PPE must be used when a toxic chemical is being applied. Types of respirators include:
    • Cartridge respirator – protects against certain pesticide dusts, mists, and fumes. An absorbent material such as activated charcoal, plus dust filters, purify the air you breathe.
    • Cannister-type (gas mask) – protects the lungs and the eyes against certain chemical dusts, mists, and fumes. This respirator contains more absorbing material and a longer-life filter than the cartridge-type respirator.
    • Supplied-air respirator – is used in toxic atmospheres where oxygen concentration is low. The operator’s hood is connected by hose to a source of outside fresh air, usually pumped by a blower.
    • Self-contained breathing apparatus – are approved for use in atmosphere that are immediately dangerous to life or health. This apparatus lets you take your air supply with you for short-term jobs.

Reading Label Instructions SHOULD BE a no-brainer

  • Whereas riding a bike and wearing a seatbelt seems like simple no brainers, it isn’t quite so with pesticides and wearing PPE.
  • Should it be a no-brainer?
    • Definitely YES!
    • There are over 900 active ingredients that are formulated into over 20,000 pesticide products which are available in the market.
      • In other words … 20,000 different ways one may be harmed if not using PPE.
    • Furthermore, adjuvants may not be as toxic as pesticides but must be handled with care because they are chemicals that are usually applied with pesticide.
    • The most important few minutes in pest control (and pesticide safety) is time spent reading the label.
      • And following instructions for using PPE.

Further Reading


  • Bohmont, B.L. 2007. The Standard Pesticide User’s Guide – 7th Ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. Pp. 181-200.

Brewer International has been a leader in land and water chemistry since the 1980’s and for over 40 years has proudly served it’s national and regional distributors. 

Our products are used widely across the United States in agriculture, aquatics, forestry, rights of way, and land management. 

Our customers trust our dedication to quality ingredients, tried and true formulas, and positive outcomes.

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