Protecting Agriculture Workers During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Crops on a farmEvery industry faces unique challenges when it comes to protecting their workers as COVID-19 makes an impact around the world. Employees on farms, ranches, and other agriculture production worksites are considered to be essential, but the agricultural sector especially faces difficulties; by the of nature operations, it can be hard to implement social distancing, and tools and equipment are frequently shared. On top of this, many agriculture workers live in shared housing and use the same transportation vehicles to get to work. While there’s no evidence that crops or products are sources of infection, close contact with coworkers contributes to the spread of coronavirus among agriculture workers.

To help prevent and control the transmission of COVID-19 in this industry, OSHA and the CDC have jointly issued guidance on recommended steps to take to protect workers from exposure. There are specific disease management and prevention measures that owners and operators can implement in production worksites so employees stay safe. If you’re in the agriculture industry, you need to follow CDC guidance, as well as recommendations established by local public health officials. 

Screening Workers for Symptoms

One of the biggest preventative measures employers may take is to screen agricultural workers for symptoms of the coronavirus before they come onsite—or, ideally, before they get on shared transportation. Workers should be asked, in a language they understand, if they have symptoms such as difficulty breathing, feverishness, or body aches. Temperatures should be checked prior to each shift; anyone who has a fever of 100.4°F or above, or who reports feeling symptoms, should not be allowed onsite.

Encourage symptomatic workers to isolate themselves and contact their healthcare provider. Provide them with information on when it will be safe for them to return to work, along with your return-to-work procedures. Human Resources should also be informed of the illness.

The Challenge to Social Distancing

The agricultural sector is unique in that social distancing is easy to do while employees are completing their daily tasks, but it is not as easy in other circumstances. Recommendations for social distancing include rearranging chairs and tables in break areas to maintain appropriate distance, and installing touch-free time clocks. If touch-free is not an option, you can set up multiple clock-in areas so employees do not gather to clock in and clock out all at once.

Since many agriculture workers share housing and transportation to/from the worksite, employers are finding a solution in grouping workers together so the people who live together also travel together and work together without coming into contact with other groups. This minimizes transmission by reducing the number of different individuals who interact—and, if workers do need to be quarantined if they’re exposed to the virus, this means that only that particular group should quarantine, rather than every single employee.

Cleaning and Sanitation

As with every other industry, agriculture workplaces need to implement protocols for consistent sanitation and disinfection. If workers must share equipment, it’s recommended to sanitize equipment between each use; if that’s not possible, a consistent cleaning regimen needs to be followed (for example, thorough cleaning once every hour). According to OSHA standard 29 CFR 1928.110, farmworkers must have access to hand washing facilities that are equipped with single-use towels, potable water, and soap. These facilities may be either permanent, or temporary.

Easy access to hand washing stations is especially important on sites where there are a large number of workers. By setting up many stations throughout the site, this minimizes the opportunity for crowding at stations. Workers should be encouraged to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, and if potable water is not possible, hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol may be provided.

Protecting Essential Agriculture Workers

As we learn more about the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, employers in the agriculture industry should stay up to date and work directly with public health officials, as well as occupational safety and health professionals. Workers should be trained on infection prevention, social distancing practices, the symptoms of coronavirus, and what to do if they think they are experiencing symptoms or they believe a coworker is experiencing symptoms.

Agriculture presents unique challenges to keeping workers safe, as it can be difficult to maintain social distancing and many workers live and travel together. OSHA’s guidance aims to help owners and operators prevent the transmission of coronavirus as much as possible. You can adapt OSHA’s recommendations to your unique worksite, and stay updated with local officials as further knowledge and guidance emerges.

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