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an agricultural worker starts new seedlings in trays; agricultural employers must manage COVID-19 to keep workers safe

Keeping Farm & Landscape Workers Safe: When Employees are Sick or Exposed to COVID-19

This blog is part of a series focused on keeping agricultural and green industry employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Other blogs in the series cover information employers need to share with employees and steps employers can take to protect employees.

Farm workers and green industry professionals (landscapers, tree trimmers, pesticide/fertilizer applicators, etc.) already face risks from heat illness, equipment injury, agri-chemical exposure, and other workplace hazards.  With the outbreak of COVID-19, they now face an additional risk as they work to produce our food and maintain our urban landscapes.  Some of our local agricultural employers have reached out to UF/IFAS Extension for guidance in keeping their workplaces safe during the pandemic.  Below is a summary of current guidance, based on the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Agricultural Workers and Employers (updated June 11, 2020; accessed July 27, 2020) and Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease (updated May 6, 2020; accessed July 24, 2020).  Other helpful resources include OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 and a quick tips 1-page fact sheet, COVID-19 Guidance for Agricultural Workers and Employers from the Martin County Department of Health and UF/IFAS Extension Martin County. As information about COVID-19 changes frequently, this blog is intended as a basic summary of the major considerations, with links where you can access the most current guidance from the CDC and other health and safety agencies.

What if an employee becomes sick or has a sick family member?

The CDC recommends employers encourage their employees to notify their supervisor if they are sick or have a family member sick at home with COVID-19.  Employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home.  Symptoms of COVID-19 are wide-ranging and can include: fever or chills, repeated shaking with chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, etc.

If an employee shows symptoms at work, they should be separated from other people immediately and sent home.  Employers should have a plan in place in advance to provide safe transport for sick employees to get back home or to a healthcare provider. The personnel who are responsible for managing sick employees should be given appropriate PPE and training. Employees staying home sick should follow CDC steps to help prevent spread of COVID-19, including if applicable, specific CDC guidance for large or extended families living in the same household.  Employers should review their leave policies to make sure employees are able to stay home when needed.  There are federal tax credits available to help employers provide the paid leave required by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. For more information on employer responsibilities, see Steps Employers Can Take to Protect Workers.

If confirmed that an employee does have COVID-19, the employer will need to inform others potentially exposed individuals, educate employees on protective measures they can take, and the employer may need to perform additional disinfection. Others at the work site who have had sustained, close contact (within 6 feet) of the employee would be considered exposed, based on the CDC’s safety practices for critical infrastructure workers who may have had exposure (updated April 20, 2020; accessed July 24, 2020). Employers should work with health officials to identify other potentially exposed individuals, including coworkers.  Health officials can also help employers to consider the appropriate role for testing and workplace contact tracing after a worker tests positive. When informing other individuals of their possible exposure to COVID-19, be sure to maintain confidentiality required by the ADA and provide the CDC Public Health Guidance for Community-Related Exposure. Protective measures employees should be made aware of include:

  • Following new policies regarding travel, meetings, cleaning, and illness;
  • Stay home if sick;
  • Inform supervisor if they have a sick family member at home;
  • Wash hands often;
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands;
  • Cover sneezes and coughs;
  • Avoid sharing other employees’ work tools and equipment;
  • Routinely clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces; and
  • Practice social distancing.

Specific guidance on each of the above precautions is provided in the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers (updated May 6, 2020; accessed July 24, 2020).

The CDC May 2020 interim guidance calls for increased disinfection if it has been less than 7 days since the sick worker was at the workplace.  For areas where the sick employee spent a lot of time, wait 24 hours (or as long as possible) before disinfecting, keep other employees out of the area until disinfected, and open outside doors and windows to help ventilate.  If it has been 7 days or more since the sick worker was at the workplace, additional cleaning and disinfection is not necessary; just continue routine cleaning.  Follow the CDC Interim Recommendations for cleaning and disinfection of community facilities (updated May 27, 2020; accessed July 24, 2020).

Employees with a sick family member should take precautions recommended by the CDC, to protect themselves and others.

When can sick employees return to work?

On July 20, 2020, the CDC offered updated recommendations for determining when a sick person can discontinue isolation in a non-healthcare setting.  Testing is no longer the recommended deciding factor in determining whether isolation may discontinue, except in certain circumstances (such as people who are severely immuno-compromised).  Instead, days past symptom onset is used as the primary deciding factor. People who are infected but do not develop symptoms may discontinue isolation and other precautions 10 days after the date of their first positive RT-PCR test for SARS-CoV-2 RNA.  Consult the most current CDC recommendations available when determining whether a sick employee can return to work.

Please note the CDC currently recommends 14 days of quarantine after exposure based on the time it takes to develop illness if infected. Thus, it is possible that a person known to be infected could leave isolation earlier than a person who is quarantined because of the possibility they are infected.

What if a worker may have been exposed to COVID-19, but is not symptomatic?

Agricultural workers are considered critical infrastructure workers.  Therefore, interim guidance from the CDC (updated April 20, 2020; accessed July 24, 2020) allows that agricultural workers may continue working, even after potential exposure to COVID-19, as long as they are asymptomatic and additional precautions are taken.  Potential exposure means being in household contact or within 6 feet of an individual with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.  The CDC requires precautions such as pre-screening, monitoring, face covering, social distancing, and disinfection be taken to prevent the exposed worker from potentially infecting others.

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