Protecting farm workers and the farm aganist the spread of COVID-19

 

While cities and towns continue to recover from COVID-19, a specific concern that remains intact are local farms and their workers. Individual farmers can take precautionary measures to make sure their farms are clean and safe places to work and to ensure the overall safety of our food supply chain.

Dr. Lucas Pantaleon, technical veterinary advisor with Ogena Solutions, emphasized the importance of biosecurity and layers of protection in implementing safety measures to protect the farm and farm teams against infection. “But cleaning a farm isn’t the same as cleaning a factory, school or even a home. Farms are the source of our food and cleaning in an agricultural setting has to ensure it is safe for people, livestock and crops and won’t damage sensitive equipment.”

          Biosecurity means taking measures to reduce the chances of an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, being carried onto a farm by people, animals, equipment or vehicles.

          Pantaleon pointed out the complex and cooperative spirit of One Health is to bring optimal health and well-being to people and animals through a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach at the local, regional, national and global levels—recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environments. This worldwide effort includes the Center for Disease Control (CDC), federal and state public health and veterinary medicine along with business leaders, community and workers to implement measures that will help with business continuity.

          Emphasizing the perilous impact of COVID-19, Pantaleon reminds people it is basically a human to human disease—of which farm workers must remain vigilant and aware. He explains the disease is principally transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets or aerosols. Transmission can also occur through contaminated, high-touched surfaces (i.e. door knobs) or other contaminated objects at the farm and passed to the community in certain circumstances.  

          According to the CDC, there is still limited information on COVID-19 and its relationship to animals. Currently, there is no evidence animals play a significant role in spreading the virus and the risk of animals spreading it to people is considered to be low; Yet, it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations.

Pantaleon suggests the following protective measures for farm workers on the farm to decrease chances of COVID-19 spreading infection:

          Language Education: This is a very important factor since many migrant workers may not understand the language used at a particular farm setting. Workers should be able to fully understand what is being communicated to them regarding prevention of the spread of COVID-19 for themselves and their teammates. Also, they must be made aware precautions are necessary so as to avoid taking the disease home to their own families.

          Transportation consists of many farm workers sharing the same vehicle to ride back and forth to work. Those who ride together should practice protocols, such as wearing masks and social distancing, instead of packing as many people as possible into one vehicle. This may cost more in gas—but it could save lives.

          Limited Farm entrances should be allowed to essential staff and service personnel only. Minimizing the number of people admitted to the farm decreases the chances for introducing animal and human diseases, including COVID-19. Restrict critical visitors to necessary areas of the farm only.

          Equipment, packages and devises entering the farm must be disinfected using the appropriate protocol. For example, the correct disinfectant can be applied with a technologically advanced sprayer that assures a uniform application of the disinfectant on all items and surfaces. Some of the items to consider are shipping boxes, cell phones, lunch boxes, etc.

          Utilize Air purifying Technology when possible. It can help to lower the amount of pathogens in the air and on some surfaces.

          Clean and disinfect (C&D) all common touch areas and surfaces thoroughly, several times a shift if possible. Ensure cleaners and disinfectants being used are safe for human contact. Gloves should be worn to protect against strong disinfectants administered frequently. It is important to clean first, in order to remove organic material or dust, before disinfecting. For safest applications, use portable foamers or sprayers.

          Personnel policies, if possible, should reassure a sick employee to stay at home without fear of repercussions from the employer or paycheck penalties. If an employee has been at home with fever and other virus symptoms, he or she should wait 24-72 hours after fever has lapsed, before returning to work. 

Screen temperatures of those who are working and test them if necessary. If an employee is sick, he should be made to understand he is to stay at home. It is key to educate employees if they or other close contacts are sick or diagnosed with COVID-19.

          Staggering scheduled shifts helps to deter concentration of personnel at entry points, in offices or lunch rooms. Weather permitting, employees should be encouraged to take breaks and eat lunch outside in the open air. Increase ventilation in any room to its fullest by opening all external air inlets.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as face covering, facial shields with eye, nose and mouth protection, should be worn to protect employees and others in close contact.

          Good hygiene includes washing hands often and absolutely no face touching, with hand sanitizing stations readily available. Employees must wash hands after handling equipment, animals or any surfaces in a farm situation or barn.

          Hand washing correctly includes a moisturizing soap that is a key aspect in preventing the transmission of diseases, most importantly, COVID-19. Ensuring everyone at the farm frequently washes their hands with the proper protocol for a minimum of 20 seconds is paramount in keeping people safe. If hand washing is not available, the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is recommended. Facilities with the capability, should install and implement a shower-in/shower-out protocol to minimize the entry of animals or human diseases into the farm.

          Social Distancing cannot be stressed enough. Because COVID-19 spreads via respiratory droplets, social distancing of at least 2 meters or 6 feet is an important step to minimize transmission. If social distancing is not possible or a large number of employees need to be indoors at the same time in the same area, such as at a processing plant, then face-covering (PPE) should be worn to decrease the amount of respiratory droplets in the environment. In addition, employees should avoid shaking hands with team members.

          • Reduce transmission in community via mitigation measures. What happens at the farm may happen in the community if precautionary measures are ignored.  

Pantaleon said recent disruptions in the food supply chain occurred when workers contracted COVID-19 on the farm or in food processing plants. These plants were forced to shut down for a period but fortunately reopened recently. But, these occurrences have had a significant impact to both product price and supply in the food chain which all facets of health entities are trying hard to avoid in the future through education of employees and implementation of steps to stringently guard against COVID-19.

          “In the end, farmers and their employees are on the frontline of this pandemic,” Pantaleon said. “The industry needs to do what it can to protect the food supply chain. By implementing protocols such as the ones listed above, producers are taking the necessary steps to minimize the spread of COVID 19.

          “If we all wear masks along with good hygiene and social distance, we can do a lot to limit and prevent this disease from growing even bigger.”

          * For more information on how to protect animal and human health from infectious diseases contact Ogena Solutions. Regarding COVID-19, information is available at  www.cdc.gov or 

By Sherry Webb and Dr. Lucas Pantaleon technical veterinary advisor, Ogena Solutions