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Personal Protective Equipment for Pesticide Applicators

Monte P. Johnson, Elizabeth P. Easter, and S.W. Horstman

Pesticides provide many benefits but can be hazardous if not used safely. We must learn to respect pesticides and the potential problems that can result from applying them in the wrong way. Personal exposure should be a major concern to anyone handling or otherwise coming into contact with pesticides. Consequently, this publication will cover some of the major subjects surrounding exposure to pesticides and how to prevent it.

Symptoms of Poisoning

One hindrance to better protection habits is that pesticide users often do not recognize that they have been poisoned. Often symptoms of pesticide poisoning are much like flu symptoms:

Symptoms of pesticide poisoning:

Symptoms of advanced poisoning:

Pesticide Labels and Signal Words

Before opening a pesticide container, carefully read the label. Pesticide product labels have “signal words” that clearly indicate the level of toxicity and the level of risk to the user. The following table lists the three different signal words and what they mean on a pesticide label:

Signal WordToxicity ClassToxicityApproximate Amount Needed to Kill 50% of a Laboratory Population of Test Animals (Mice, Rats, etc. If Taken Orally)
DANGERIHighly toxicTaste to 1/8 of an ounce.
WARNINGIIModerately toxic1/8 of an ounce to a little over an ounce.
CAUTIONIIISlightly toxicA little over an ounce to more than a pint (16 ounces).
CAUTIONIVAlmost nontoxicWell over a pint (16 ounces).

Routes of Exposure

Pesticide labels describe the pesticides’ routes of entry into your body. Examples are: “Poisonous if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.” Or “rapidly absorbed through the skin and eyes.”

Research has shown that pesticides are absorbed through the skin at different rates on various parts of the body. Special protection should be given to the scalp, ear canal, and forehead areas. The groin area should also be protected. Since hands and forearms are the most likely places of exposure, they should always be protected when handling pesticides. Figure 1 shows different rates of absorption through the skin on different parts of the body.

Figure 1. — Rates of Pesticide Exposure Through the Skin. Rates of absorption through the skin are different for different parts of the body. Compared to dermal absorption rate through the forearm (absorption rate of 1), absorption through the groin area would be more than 11 times faster.

Personal Protective Equipment

Many different types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are available through safety supply businesses and catalogs, pesticide dealers, and garden, nursery and forestry supply houses.


When the pesticide label recommends gloves, wear chemically-resistant gloves. Chemical resistance means that pesticides will not pass through the glove material.

Coveralls and Aprons

Some pesticide labels may recommend a long-sleeved shirt and long-legged pants of sturdy, woven fabric. Many pesticide labels require coveralls worn over shirt and pants. Some labels will require chemically-resistant suits with sealed seams.

Coverall materials include:

Wear sleeves outside gloves and pant legs outside boots.

Chemically resistant aprons can be worn when mixing and loading pesticides or cleaning equipment.



Select a wide-brimmed, waterproof hat that will protect the neck, eyes, mouth, and face. Plastic hard hats with plastic sweatbands are a good choice as they are waterproof. Avoid hats with a cloth or leather sweatband. Cloth or leather sweatbands are difficult or impossible to clean.


Wear protective eyewear when working with dusts, mists, when liquids may splash in your eyes, or when working with pressurized systems.


The lungs and lining of the respiratory system readily absorb pesticide dusts, mists, and vapors. Respiratory protection is recommended during mixing and loading pesticides, even if not required on the label. Respirator filters either chemically change the pesticide into a harmless form or a solid form that will be trapped inside the filter.

Different cartridges are available to protect against a variety of chemical gases and vapors. Replace the cartridge according to the manufacturer’s recommendations as soon as you begin to smell pesticide coming through the respirator, or if breathing becomes difficult.

Respirator Types:

When Using a Respirator:

Inspecting, Maintaining, and Replacing PPE

PPE should be disposable or sturdy enough to be cleaned for repeated use. To remain effective, PPE must be maintained properly and replaced as necessary.


Disposables are PPE items not designed to be cleaned and reused. However, if recommended by the manufacturer, some disposable coveralls can be laundered several times before being discarded. Discard them when they become contaminated with pesticides.


Reusables are PPE items designed to be easily cleaned and reused. However, do not reuse items that can no longer provide adequate protection.

Washing PPE

Do not allow contaminated or soiled PPE items to be washed with the regular family laundry. It could cause other items to become contaminated. Wear chemically resistant gloves when handling contaminated or soiled PPE.

Boots, helmets, goggles, respirators, and other bulky items can be washed by hand. Other items can be washed as follows:

  1. Pre-rinse in a washing machine or by hand.
  2. Wash in a washing machine, using a heavy-duty detergent and hot water for the wash cycle.
  3. Wash only a few items at a time to allow plenty of agitation and water for dilution. Use the highest water-level setting.
  4. Rinse twice using two rinse cycles and warm water.
  5. Use two entire machine cycles to wash items that are moderately to heavily contaminated.
  6. Run the washer through at least one additional entire cycle without clothing, using detergent and hot water, to clean the machine.

Drying PPE

Hang the items to dry outdoors, if possible, as the sunlight and fresh air will help remove remaining pesticide residues. If it is not possible to air dry, then using a clothes dryer is acceptable for fabric items. However, the dryer can become contaminated with pesticide residues over time.

Avoiding Heat Stress

Heat stress is the illness that occurs when the body builds up more heat than it can cope with. Severe heat stress (heat stroke) can result in death. Signs and symptoms of heat stress may include:

Anyone showing signs and symptoms of heat stress should be treated immediately.

Heat stress is not caused by exposure to pesticides, but may affect pesticide handlers who are working in hot conditions. Wearing PPE can increase the risk of heat stress by limiting the body’s ability to cool down. The following suggestions can help reduce the chance of heat stress:

Additional Information

Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service Publications (contact your local county Extension office)

Core Manual: Applying Pesticides Correctly: A Guide for Private and Commercial Applicators

PAT 2 — Kentucky's Pesticide Applicator Training and Certification Program

PAT 3 — Sprayer Nozzles: Selection and Calibration

PAT 4 — Greenhouse Pesticides and Pesticide Safety

PAT 5 — NAPIAP in Kentucky

ENT 53 — Vendors of Beneficial Organisms in North America

ENT 54 — Vendors of Microbial and Botanical Insecticides and Insect Monitoring Devices

ID 98 — Guidelines for Pesticide Use

ID 100 — Understanding Pesticide Labels and Labeling

ID 103 — Kentucky’s Endangered and Threatened Species

IP 9 — Pesticide Residues in Grains, Vegetables, Fruits, and Nuts

IP 11 — Residues in Animal-Derived Foods

IP 13 — Protecting Kentucky’s Groundwater: A Grower’s Guide

HE 2-319A — Tips for Laundering Pesticide- Contaminated Clothing

Special Report 91-1 — Kentucky Pesticide User Practices and Alternatives, 1990

Special Report 92-2 — Kentucky Pesticide User Practices and Alternatives, 1991

Special Report 93-2 — Kentucky Pesticide User Practices and Alternatives, 1992. Includes comprehensive summaries for 1990-1992.

Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service Videotapes (contact your local county Extension office)

V7-ENT-0316 — Applying Pesticides Correctly...The Label Is Your Guide

V8-ENT-0350 — Pesticide Safety Equipment

V8-AEN-0348 — Groundwater and Well Testing Series


Dr. Monte P. Johnson, Extension Specialist, Department of Entomology, University of Kentucky

Dr. Elizabeth P. Easter, Interior Design Department, University of Kentucky

Dr. Sanford W. Horstman, Preventive Medicine & Environmental Health, Albert B. Chandler Medical Center, University of Kentucky

Special thanks to Dr. Larry R. Piercy, Agricultural Engineering Department, University of Kentucky, for reviewing this manuscript.


Pesticide Spills

If you have a pesticide spill and need information on how to handle this type of emergency, call: 911

Kentucky Environmental Response — (800) 928-2380

CHEMTREC Pesticide Emergency Hotline (24 hour) — (800) 424-9300

Disaster Emergency Service (24 hour);

State Coordinating Agency for Disasters and Emergencies — (502) 564-7815

Division of Pesticides, Kentucky Department of Agriculture — (502) 564-7274

Kentucky Department of Human Resources — (502) 564-4537

Pesticide Exposures

If you have a person who has been exposed to a particular pesticide, provide your physician or emergency room with these emergency numbers, designed to provide pharmacological information on pesticides to health professionals:

The Kentucky Regional Poison Center of Kosair Children’s Hospital — (800) 722-5725

In Metro Louisville call — 589-8222

National Pesticide Clearinghouse — (800) 858-PEST (7378)
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
School of Medicine
Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health
Lubbock, TX 79430

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