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Looking at pesticide labels through multi-colored glasses


Pesticides are one of the most significant sources of poison to the human nervous system when misused. New research indicates that various cultures may misinterpret the directions provided by the manufacturers, thereby increasing the chances for mishandling.

The pesticide industry considers culture to be an increasing concern due to changing demographic trends - specifically, increases in migrant laborers and overall language diversity. As these trends continue, the opportunities for communication errors with pesticide use increase. Previous studies indicate that the main reason pesticides are misused is because customers are unable to follow the instructions. Cultural differences in how one interprets language, color, and symbols may exacerbate the problem.

To reduce the possibility of pesticide exposure, two researchers are investigating the use of cultural ergonomics to prevent pesticide exposure. Tonya Smith-Jackson, assistant professor of human factors engineering and ergonomics at Virginia Tech, and Michael Wogalter, professor of ergonomics at North Carolina State University, are working together under the auspices of a research contract from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Using a pesticide takes more than just knowing what pest it will kill. It requires an understanding of how much to mix, how to apply it, and what protective gear to wear. “In an increasingly diverse and global society, communication ergonomics (the study of human-centered design of communications) is desperately needed to reduce the hazards associated with products and systems and the additional problems introduced by poor information design,” Smith-Jackson said.

Examples of pesticide misuse include: using too much pesticide (either too strong of a concentration or applying it too often), using an outdoor pesticide indoors, failing to follow the restricted time for reentering an area after a pesticide has been applied, or failing to wear the required safety gear, such as rubber gloves and eye goggles.

Farmers and pest managers need to be able to read and understand pesticide labels before even opening the container.

The research will improve the design of risk communications aimed at reducing or eliminating hazards related to pesticide exposures among ethnic minority farm workers, which in turn, is likely to apply to all farm workers regardless of ethnicity. Smith-Jackson and Wogalter are interviewing Latino and European-American farm workers on the use of pesticides and precautionary behavior when working on farms. The farmers being interviewed are working at peanut and fruit farms in Giles County, Va., Wake County, N.C., and Orange County, N.C.

The research project combines the disciplines of engineering, psychology, and cultural anthropology. The risk perception of migrant and seasonal farm workers who are language- and ethnic-minorities will be compared to non-minority farm workers. It is expected that even non-minority farm workers will have problems with pesticide labeling.

User-centered design guidelines for pesticide warning labels will be developed and an evaluation of usability and effectiveness will be conducted. User requirements and design specifications will be developed and disseminated to risk communication manufacturers, employers, health educators, safety and training groups, minority-serving agencies, and community-based advocacy and education groups.

Smith-Jackson’s research is in collaboration with the Southeastern Regional Agromedicine Center in Greenville, N.C. Graduate students assisting with this research include Yvette Quintela, an M.S. student in psychology at Virginia Tech, and Ray Lim and Eric Shaver, Ph.D. students in psychology at N.C. State. Smith-Jackson is the director of the Assessment and Cognitive Ergonomics (ACE) Lab at Virginia Tech ( For more information, contact Smith-Jackson at

PR CONTACT: Karen Gilert 540-231-4787

Tonya Smith-Jackson | EurekAlert!
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