Why the grass is always greener: Understanding commercial pesticide applicators as Accidental Risk Communicators
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Within the risk communication literature, considerable attention has focused on messages delivered by "official" messengers. This research pursues an alternative course, examining unintentional risk messages and their "unofficial" carriers. Referred to in this study as "accidental risk communicators" (ARCs), these individuals routinely discuss health and environmental risks with the public as a secondary, not formally recognized part of their job. From the tanning salon owner explaining the "safety" of UV radiation, to the auto mechanic performing a routine inspection, to the commercial painter handling lead-based paint, ARCs span a variety of occupations. Since ARCs often represent for-profit businesses, the public may be suspicious of their message, perhaps assuming that the information reflects corporate avarice rather than "impartial" scientific information. Yet often blue-collar laborers, ARCs may appear more similar to some sectors of the public, and thus more credible than "remote" government officials. In some cases, the pressure to sell a product may lead the ARC to deemphasize risks, whereas an occupational injury may make certain risk factors more salient.
To begin explicating this concept empirically, this research examined the communicative practices of one sector of ARCs: turf and lawn care workers in New York State who are trained and certified to apply pesticides, and often expected to discuss health and environmental risks with both paying clients and curious onlookers. Licensed by the state, these individuals receive extensive training covering application methods and workplace safety, as well as basic principles of toxicology. The questions guiding this research were as follows: How do applicators make sense of the role they (do or do not) play in delivering risk-related information? How do CPAs make decisions about when, what, and how to communicate with their clients and the general public about pesticide-related risks? And, what are the dominant stories and themes used to characterize, make sense of, and discuss pesticide-related risks? In-depth interviews were conducted with 29 respondents affiliated with the Green Industry in New York State, and short written questionnaires were received from 24 participants at the 2007 Empire State Green Industry Show. Interviews were recorded and transcribed, then coded line-by-line both by hand and with Atlas.ti qualitative data analysis software.
Emergent themes were grouped into the following categories: the institutional culture of the applicator's workplace, the perception of a "successful" applicator, the perception of the applicator's role, and the perception of risk and "Western" science, as related more centrally to turf and lawn pesticides. Among these themes, the idea of the applicator's work as "emotional labor" and/or "background work," and the effect of his occupational "expertise" on ideas of democratic citizenship are discussed in length. To continue building a theoretical foundation for the ARC concept, future research questions in these areas are posed. Practical implications for both Cooperative Extension and the Green Industry in the areas of applicator training, pesticide product labeling, and the "framing" of the industry are also discussed.