By Lisa Pfeifer and Dee Jepsen
In big or small ways, COVID-19 has impacted most aspects of farming and agribusiness. Safety, health, and wellness have become necessary concerns for farm operations.
Health officials have provided guidance on frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and staying home when sick. These practices should be in place for the farm operation, not just those businesses with public interaction. Consider these additional measures as you prepare your workforce for staying healthy through the fall season.
Teams or workforce pods
Look at the functions of your total farm operation. Creating workforce teams or “pods” can help ensure an operation minimizes the impacts should a worker become ill or test positive for the coronavirus. Pods of workers that had no interaction with the affected employee will be safely able to continue working.
For example, do you have livestock to care for as well as harvesting activities?
- If so, can you manage employee schedules so those that feed, milk or care for livestock can do tasks without overlapping with the harvesting crew?
- If your workforce is small and employees serve in multiple capacities, can you structure work so they may perform tasks distant from one another?
Transportation and farm vehicles
Farm operations involve many forms of transportation. Assigning employees to specific farm vehicles or tasks will help reduce contact or exposure with the entire fleet. Knowing which vehicles will be used for various tasks, who will operate tractors or combines, who will bring lunch to the field and whether that person will use the UTV or farm truck for delivery is a good starting point.
- Keep all employees out of the cab of equipment and vehicles, even to hand off tools or receive communication, unless they are the ‘assigned operator.’
- Eliminate ride sharing in all vehicles. If that cannot be achieved establish protocols for how a cabin will be sanitized.
- Set sanitation protocols for high touch points within tractors, equipment, and transport vehicles. Workers should have access to hand sanitizer and/or cleaning supplies for the equipment they operate. Have a procedure established so everyone knows who is responsible for cleaning shared equipment; is it the person who enters the vehicle, or the person who exits the vehicle.
Look at common areas shared by all employees, like the shop or break room. Think about how you can increase employee safety in these environments.
• Provide adequate space between workers.
• Replace shared shop rags with disposable towels.
Employee illness or positive cases
Establish rules for how illness and positive coronavirus test results will be handled. Discuss these procedures with employees. Workers that are experiencing COVID symptoms may be contagious. Follow your local health department requirements by asking sick employees to stay home or self-quarantine from the rest of the farm workforce.
- Putting some thought into the types of tasks employees do, or the number of people they encounter during their shift, will help you create safe distancing environments for other employees.
- Can employees who want to come to work be permitted? The employer needs to weigh out this risk and consider how the consequences will affect the entire operation. In these situations, it will be important to identify tasks that can be completely performed in isolation.
- Send sick employees to get tested as soon as possible, to minimize the “wait period” for test results. Treat employees who are feeling sick or waiting for the results the same, and assume they are positive for coronavirus.
Farm management illnesses
Harvest brings about numerous business tasks, decisions, and operations that fall solely to the farm manager to execute. In the event the farm owner/manager should fall ill, has a plan been established for how to move through the season without that person? In times of uncertainty this type of planning can be the difference in whether or not an operation survives. There is a lot at stake during harvest, so do not dismiss continuity plans for the farm operation.
- Examine critical functions of your business by considering the processes involved with agronomic crops, livestock operations, finance and bookkeeping and employee management.
- Identify employees, neighbors, or other contracted services to help keep an operation functioning. Ensure the appropriate information is available, including passwords, contracts, crop rotation plans.
Both authors work in the Agricultural Safety and Health Program at OSU. Lisa Pfeifer, Program Manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dee Jepsen, Associate Professor, can be reached at email@example.com. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.