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Facilitating improved chemical use: the phosphine awareness program

Graham White1, Peter Botta2, Philip Burrill3, John Cameron4, Julianne Farrell5, Peter Fulwood6 and Chris Newman7

1 Department of Primary Industries, PO Box 102, Toowoomba, Queensland 4350
Department of Natural Resources and Environment, PO Box 124, Benalla, Victoria 3672
Department of Primary Industries, MS 508, Warwick, Queensland 4370
Independent Consultants Australia Network Pty Ltd, PO Box 718, Hornsby, New South Wales 2077
New South Wales Agriculture, PMB Wagga Wagga, New South Wales 2650
PIRSA Rural Solutions, PO Box 245, Nurioopta, South Australia 5355
Agriculture Western Australia, Bougainvillea Av, Forrestfield, Western Australia 6058


Safe and responsible use of the grain fumigant phosphine is being promoted in a project funded by Grains Research and Development Corporation. The project addresses concerns over potential workplace health and safety issues and development of insect resistance to the fumigant.

Project state coordinators have involved grain growers, grain and produce merchants, bulk handlers, grain transport industries, government regulators and training organisations in formulation and implementation of action plans. All participants have enthusiastically supported the need for and direction of the project.

The project strategy includes:

  • a traditional information campaign to raise awareness of the issues through multiple media releases and brochures,
  • promotion of accredited training in phosphine use, and
  • liaising with phosphine registrants, regulators and users over label changes.

Government regulators are shifting their approach to changes in chemical use, requiring much greater industry input than in the past. Coordinating that industry input could be a significant future role for some extension workers in agriculture.


Approaches to improvement in agricultural chemical use are shifting from a strong emphasis on legislation and regulation towards a more participatory process with an emphasis on education and training. This paper gives an example of the latter approach applied to the fumigant chemical, phosphine, in the grains industry.

Phosphine is a gas, usually generated from tablets, applied to grain to kill weevils. Most users have become complacent in their use of the chemical over a couple of decades. Anecdotal evidence suggests that occasional cases of exposure causing short-term, reversible poisoning occur throughout the grain industry. Workplace health and safety representatives are concerned about these cases and the potential for worse accidents, and have proposed regulations restricting phosphine use to licensed fumigators. Researchers are concerned about increasing levels of resistance to phosphine in several of the pest insects it is used to control. A national conference on grain storage recognised " that hazardous practices … may indirectly threaten the continued use of this important material by the Australian grain industry".

Against this background Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) nominated as a priority for 2000-2001a “national awareness program targeting appropriate use of phosphine, leading towards accredited use of phosphine”. This paper reports on a project developed to address the issues of safe and effective use of phosphine.

Development of the project

GRDC in 1999 organised a workshop including grain growers, merchants, handlers and processors, researchers and extension personnel to discuss extension needs for grain storage. Improved phosphine use was raised as a central theme and a broad range of possible approaches was suggested.

A project team from agriculture departments in each of the major grain producing states, some of whom had attended the workshop, communicated by phone and email to submit a preliminary proposal to GRDC incorporating some of the approaches suggested at the workshop. A panel of GRDC representatives met with the project supervisor to guide and further refine the project direction.

Working groups

Our aim has been to be as inclusive as possible in addressing the problems of phosphine use by inviting all stakeholders to contribute to the solutions.

The stakeholders involved in phosphine use, those affected by problems, and those who could play a role in solutions to the problems were identified during development of the project. Industries and groups identified at a state level included:

  • Grower groups
  • Seed, feed and grain merchants
  • Bulk handling companies
  • Grain transport/ trucking companies
  • Chemical resellers/ Avcare
  • Chemical use and workplace health and safety government representatives
  • Rural training organisations (FarmSafe, ChemSafe/ChemCert, AgSafe)
  • Quarantine inspectors
  • Silo manufacturers
  • Seed graders and cleaners
  • Extension officers and consultants (eg TopCrop development officers)
  • GRDC communications specialists

Groups identified at the national level included:

  • Grains Council of Australia, National Farmers Federation
  • Australian Wheat Board
  • National Registration Authority
  • Phosphine importers
  • Phosphine specialist scientists

The project began with a national coordination meeting and the formation of state working groups including representatives from all stakeholder groups. Within the national meeting and state groups the problems were raised, potential solutions were suggested and discussed, and directions were decided. Not surprisingly, the directions suggested at each of the meetings were the same, although there were useful and important differences in detail between suggestions.

Outcomes from those meetings include:

  • acceptance by all stakeholders of existing and potential problems, and the need to do something about them,
  • support for raising awareness of issues and solutions through publications, media releases, field days and grower meetings, provided that information is not alarmist,
  • support for voluntary training, but reluctance amongst growers to accept the need for mandatory training, particularly for a specialist course for one pesticide,
  • support for improvement of labels on containers of the chemical, but some reluctance to support removal of common practices that provide superficial control but lead to resistance and safety problems
  • support for monitoring for phosphine at grain receival points to avoid exposure of grain workers and to raise awareness of the safety issue, and
  • support for regulatory action in identified cases of misuse.

These actions are all being pursued.

Several participants have commented on the spirit of cooperation and goodwill at these meetings. The typically adversarial roles of chemical users and regulators, fostered by a history of prosecution as the means of enforcement, were set aside to a large degree in an attempt to reach mutually acceptable outcomes. Government regulators nationally are keen to continue an awareness/ educational approach in conjunction with a regulatory/ enforcement approach. At this stage the draft workplace health and safety regulations that would have restricted phosphine use to licensed fumigators are unlikely to proceed.

Raising awareness

During the past year the project team has highlighted phosphine issues through:

  • a dozen press releases circulated to all rural media,
  • several articles in rural magazines,
  • addresses to thousands of growers, advisers, grain merchants and users, and rural women at field days and meetings, and
  • circulation of two brochures through the GRDC distribution network to all graingrowers.

The themes have been "Keep Phosphine Safe" and "Phosphine - use it responsibly or lose it".

Participant organisations have supported the campaign by issuing press releases (eg AgForce in Queensland), by publishing information in newsletters to their members, and by providing information on safe use of phosphine on web pages (eg New South Wales Farmers Association, and Queensland's Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations). Many grain handling and processing companies are now measuring the phosphine concentration in any grain deliveries that smell of phosphine, and rejecting any that have a concentration above the acceptable standard for the work environment. This action will raise awareness that major sectors of the grains industry are taking the risks of phosphine poisoning seriously.

There appears to be a much broader recognition of potential problems with phosphine since the project began. Before the project, GRDC had approached the national Grains Council of Australia seeking support for mandatory training for phosphine users. Support was not forthcoming. However, a motion to Victorian Farmers Federation this year supporting training for phosphine users and requesting removal of some common practices from the label was passed. The motion was put by concerned growers independent of the project.

The number of requests for advice about use of phosphine has increased significantly. A chemical use regulator involved in one of the groups has been surprised about the enquiries for advice he has received when people normally avoid mentioning application problems for fear of action against them.

Increasing knowledge and skills

Training has been identified by all groups as a necessary component for improving the use of phosphine.

The ChemCert network of training organisations provides training in on-farm chemical use. Given the acceptance of this network in the past by grower organisations, the chemical industry and the National Registration Authority (NRA), the project team has encouraged, and contributed to, development of a phosphine training module within the network. If alternative training providers wish to offer phosphine modules, we will provide similar support.

A range of agricultural chemicals is being considered for listing in a category of restricted chemicals that will require on-farm chemical use training as a pre-requisite for supply. As an S7 chemical, phosphine is being considered. Although listing of phosphine would provide strong motivation for users to undertake training, the project team is not actively promoting this action because support from grower members of the working groups is mixed. One of the major suppliers of phosphine in Australia, with whom the project team has been in contact, has recommended to NRA that phosphine be listed as a restricted chemical.

The labels on containers of phosphine are potentially a useful source of information. The project team is liaising with NRA over label improvements. NRA have provided guidelines for change that involve gaining support from suppliers of phosphine, bulk handling companies who are the major users, and grain growers. The outcome of negotiations is uncertain at the time of writing this paper.


The level of awareness of phosphine safety and effectiveness has increased during the life of the project. This outcome is satisfying and promising. Whether this will be translated into changed practices remains to be evaluated.

Opening the change process to all stakeholders has, to a large extent, defused the potential view of we in government attempting to impose change on a sector of the community. The project has the support of all stakeholder groups. Change and increased regulation has been discussed as part of the range of potential solutions to a problem recognised by all. Reluctance to accept some of the potential changes has been part of the discussion, but hasn't become a reason to reject the project outright and argue against all changes.

Inclusion of all stakeholder groups has also increased the range of networks and resources available for communication of the key messages of the project.

The project has provided a focal point for all organisations involved in use and regulation of phosphine, and so far all have used the opportunity to move towards more responsible use of this valuable product.

The role of the project coordinators goes far beyond, but also includes, traditional technology transfer. They are the key communications link with government and industry groups and phosphine suppliers during the project. Their primary roles have been to identify and bring all stakeholders on board, and to ensure that all groups are aware of phosphine-related issues and actions being undertaken as part of the project. This engendered support for actions taken, and defused any negative reactions that could jeopardise responsible phosphine use.

The broader role of the project coordinators has required a much greater time commitment than a traditional information campaign. This commitment would not have been made available by their employers without the significant support from GRDC that the project has received.

The shift in approach to changes in chemical use by government regulators will require much greater industry input than in the past. Coordinating that industry input could be a significant future role for some extension workers in agriculture.

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