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 what to do if an employee is sick or exposed to COVID-19.
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 Responding 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 OSHA.
What steps can I take as an employer to promote safety?
- Create a COVID-19 assessment and control plan specific to your business. The CDC offers a checklist for agricultural employers to use in crafting a plan. Consider input from employees, federal government phased opening guidelines, CDC mitigation strategies, specific areas and job tasks with potential exposures to COVID-19, employees with greater exposure risks, and a hierarchy of control measures to eliminate or reduce exposure.
- Identify a workplace coordinator of COVID-19 assessment and control planning. All workers should know how to contact the coordinator with COVID-19 concerns, and worker confidentiality should be maintained when addressing concerns. When communicating with workers, the coordinator should have means to communicate in the languages (if possible) and at the appropriate literacy of the workers. Workers should also be provided with contact information for COVID-19 testing locations.
- Provide training for your employees on the steps they can take to protect themselves and others, both at home and at work.
- Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks, with protections for screeners, social distancing during screening, and confidentiality of information.
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home.
- If an employee shows symptoms when they arrive for work or during the workday, they should immediately be separated from other employees/customers and sent home. The employer should have a procedure in place to safely transport sick employees home or to a healthcare provider if needed.
- Take appropriate actions to protect other employees and customers if an employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19.
- Review your leave policies to make sure you are flexible with employees who need to stay home when they are sick, care for a sick family member, or care for children. The US Division of Labor (DOL) offers information for employers on wages, hours, and leave, including required posters notifying employees of their sick leave and expanded family and medical leave rights under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). The DOL also offers a helpful online tool for employees (employer tool coming soon) to determine their eligibility for the FFCRA; eligible employers receive tax credits to cover the costs of employee paid leave related to COVID-19.
- Make sure your human resource policies are consistent with public health recommendations and workplace laws. The US Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) both offer coronavirus resource pages. The EEOC has helpful FAQ and Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace publications, discussing ADA principles related to workplace pandemic planning such as: how much information an employer can request from an employee who calls in sick, when an employer can legally take the body temperature of employees during a pandemic, whether employers can require employees to stay home if they have symptoms, and whether employers can require doctors’ notes certifying employees returning to work are fit for duty. Additionally, OSHA offers Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, which recommends specific protections for employees, based on their exposure risk.
- Consider offering support for employees who commute to work using public transportation or ride sharing. Supports may include incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others (e.g., traveling by car alone or with only household members, biking, walking), sharing CDC guidance on how to protect yourself when using transportation, and encouraging employees to clean their hands as soon as possible after travel. See also the CDC interim guidance section, “Special considerations for shared transportation.”
- Offer available social, behavioral, and other services to employees, including employee assistance program (EAP) and community resources.
- Employers not currently offering sick leave to some or all of their employees should consider offering non-punitive emergency sick leave policies.
- Establish social distancing policies, so that workers and customers can maintain distance (6 foot or 2 meters) when possible. Options to support social distancing include: telework, staggered shifts, reduced crew sizes, grouping healthy workers into cohorts that include the same workers each day, increased worksite physical spacing among employees and between employees and customers, closing or limiting access to common areas where employees are likely to congregate, postponing non-essential meetings and events, and delivering services remotely (e.g. phone, video, or web). When videoconferencing or teleconferencing are not possible, hold meetings in open, well-ventilated spaces, continuing to maintain a distance of 6 feet apart and wear cloth face coverings.
- When maintaining a 6-foot distance among workers is not possible, shields or barriers can be installed between workers.
- Remove or rearrange chairs and tables and add visual cue marks in employee break areas, to support social distancing.
- Keep the workplace clean and well-ventilated. Consider increasing building ventilation rates, increasing the percentage of outdoor air circulating into the system, improving central air filtration to MERV-13 or the highest compatible with the filter rack, keep systems running 24/7 if possible, and making other improvements to the building ventilation. Provide cleaning and disinfection supplies (soap and water, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, tissues, disinfection supplies meeting the EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-Cov-2, no-touch trash receptacles, etc.) at multiple locations, and keep the supplies available for use. Post information in languages understood by employees reminding employees of hand hygiene and coughing/sneezing etiquette. Clean and disinfect all frequently touched workplace surfaces, including work vehicles and tools, regularly.
- If you offer shared employee housing, refer to the CDC interim guidance section on “Special considerations for shared housing.”
- Establish policies and inform employees that it is important to restrict children from work sites. In cases where youth are hired, make sure to follow labor laws, assign age-appropriate tasks, and provide extra supervision, especially highlighting protections to minimize their exposure to COVID-19.
- If you have an employee who is suspected or confirmed as having COVID-19, follow the CDC recommendations to perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection.
- Limit travel and advise employees who must travel to take precautions. Keep track of CDC Traveler’s Health Notices and stay in communications with employees about travel limitations and precautions.
What about masks?
The CDC recommends wearing a mask to help contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets and offer a measure of protection to co-workers and members of the general public. Circumstances where masks are recommended include:
- CDC recommends that people wear cloth face coverings and practice social distancing. Cloth face coverings can be especially important when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain based on working conditions;
- In some cases, workers have to travel in the same vehicle and distancing is not feasible; the CDC recommends the use of face coverings whether the transportation be a shared personal vehicle, taxi, bus, or other form of transportation;
- Workers who are asymptomatic but may have been exposed to COVID-19 should wear a face mask at all times in the workplace for 14 days after exposure, according to the CDC interim guidance for critical infrastructure workers (updated April 20, 2020; accessed July 24, 2020); and
- If the workplace hazard assessment determines that COVID-19 exposure is a risk for workers in a particular area or on a specific task, and those situations would not otherwise call for a respirator or medical facemask, they should be encouraged to wear a cloth face covering for protection. The CDC cautions that cloth face coverings are not appropriate substitutes for PPE such as respirators, that may be needed to protect wearers from pesticide exposure or other workplace hazards.
The CDC’s interim guidance section on “Cloth face coverings in agricultural operations” gives specifications for cloth face coverings with considerations to address heat injury, replacement of wet or contaminated coverings, daily cleaning, etc.
Precautions or limitations of cloth face coverings:
- The CDC cautions that wearing a cloth face covering does not replace the need to practice social distancing.
- Cloth face coverings are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE). The face coverings may prevent workers (or customers), including those who don’t know they have the virus, from spreading it to others. However, the face covering may not protect the wearer from exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.
University of Florida provides information on proper handling and use of face masks, making DIY masks, and using bandanas as protective face coverings.
Wearing a face mask does NOT provide complete protection and does not replace other precautions, such as social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, washing hands, and keeping hands away from nose/mouth/eyes.