Background Pesticide poisoning is an important health problem among Chinese farm workers, but there is a paucity of pesticide poisoning data from China. Using the WHO standard case definition of a possible acute pesticide poisoning, we investigated the prevalence and risk factors of acute work-related pesticide poisoning among farmers in Southern China. Methods A stratified sample of 910 pesticide applicators from two villages in southern China participated in face-to-face interviews. Respondents who self-reported having two or more of a list of sixty-six symptoms within 24 hours after pesticide application were categorized as having suffered acute pesticide poisoning. The association between the composite behavioral risk score and pesticide poisoning were assessed in a multivariate logistic model. Results A total of 80 (8.8%) pesticide applicators reported an acute work-related pesticide poisoning. The most frequent symptoms among applicators were dermal (11.6%) and nervous system (10.7%) symptoms. Poisoning was more common among women, farmers in poor areas, and applicators without safety training (all p < 0.001). After controlling for gender, age, education, geographic area and the behavioral risk score, farmers without safety training had an adjusted odds ratio of 3.22 (95% CI: 1.86-5.60). The likelihood of acute pesticide poisoning was also significantly associated with number of exposure risk behaviors. A significant "dose-response" relationship between composite behavioral risk scores calculated from 9 pesticides exposure risk behaviors and the log odds of pesticide poisoning prevalence was seen among these Chinese farmers (R2 = 0.9246). Conclusions This study found that 8.8% of Chinese pesticide applicators suffered acute pesticide poisoning and suggests that pesticide safety training, safe application methods, and precautionary behavioral measures could be effective in reducing the risk of pesticide poisoning.