Even though 15 years have passed since the accident, Duane Bushman's body won't let him forget. In fact, it's a memory he will never likely shake: hearing the rip as a bolt tears a 50-lb bag of insecticide, then feeling the May wind whip the deadly powder straight in his face. Bushman, who still farms near Decorah, IA, was wearing no protective gear.

After several years of treatments, a brain tumor and seizure-like symptoms were under control. But Bushman has never regained full control of his left leg and arm. Despite the passing of time since the accident, the scent of chemicals in his local co-op still triggers shock-like nerve symptoms, sending pain down his leg.

These days, “we're becoming much more careful about applying pesticides,” says George Maher, North Dakota State University extension safety expert. “Primarily, it's because it's a high-priced input on our crops. But carelessness and ignorance still threaten health.”

Such carelessness causes not only illness, but also legal problems. Maher recommends several pesticide handling guidelines to avoid both. Before even going out to the sprayer, “remember that the list from the label is the absolute minimum equipment required — and then put it on,” says Maher. “It doesn't do any good sitting in the cab of the pickup or tractor.” This means donning coveralls, aprons, respirators, goggles, hat and boots, and keeping a full set of spare equipment with you at all times.

Consider the formulation of the product, too. “If it's a dust, it's likely to blow around. If it's a liquid, open it while pointing away from you to minimize any splash-back,” says Maher. Plastic jugs, if squeezed just slightly while opened, can gush.

In case of spills, clean-up equipment right at the spray rig will minimize exposure. “That could save a person a lot of medical treatment,” says Maher. Store soap, water, rinse water, paper towels, a spare set of protective clothing and even a spare change of clothing.

Equipment clean-out deserves attention, too. “When you flush out the sprayer, you want to do it in the treated crop and not in a ditch or slough,” says Maher. “Reused jugs must be triple rinsed, and only over the crop.”

EPA takes a dim view of reckless pesticide handling. Keep precise records of mixes, and “record the weather and application conditions,” Maher says. The applicator, whether commercial or private, has absolute responsibility with the results. The more accurate the records, the better defense you have in court.

Your dealer can also help with record-keeping forms, books and more-accurate and understandable information than is provided on the label. Information services and software “are good if they're used,” says Maher.

Properly calibrated and maintained equipment will benefit accuracy as well. Replace spray nozzles every season, and make sure you have accurate pressure gauges for a uniform pattern.

And finally, consider using custom applicators. “Most applicators charge a reasonable price per acre, and some charge for the season. Most of the time that's pretty hard to beat,” says Maher.

If you go with a commercial applicator, look for one with a neat, orderly office who keeps his appointments and is willing to supply accurate records of previous jobs.

“Be cautious,” advises Bushman, who now manages an organic farm. So many farmers are hiring custom applicators these days, he adds. “That shows you that they realize it's dangerous.”