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Keeping Produce Workers Safe from COVID-19

While, maintaining a safe and healthy work environment for agricultural employees is always a priority, Bob Boehm, general manager of Great Lakes Ag Labor Services (GLALS), says farm employers are encouraged to take additional precautions to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace. Photo: Michigan Farm Bureau
While, maintaining a safe and healthy work environment for agricultural employees is always a priority, Bob Boehm, general manager of Great Lakes Ag Labor Services (GLALS), says farm employers are encouraged to take additional precautions to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace. Photo: Michigan Farm Bureau

Produce growers here in Michigan have many concerns with COVID-19 and how it will affect their businesses in the near term.

Both at the farm and consumer level, there are concerns if the virus can be contracted from surfaces, such as produce. Phil Tocco, food safety and food and animal systems educator with MSU Extension, says that’s been the elephant in the room.

“The CDC, the FDA, European Health Agencies, and the World Health Organization all report there’s currently no evidence to support that food or food packaging materials are associated with the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the actual virus that causes COVID-19,” said Tocco. “The highest concern with respect to transmission is person-to-person contact.

That person-to-person contact is certainly a concern for farmers. Social distancing can be difficult when jobs naturally happen in close quarters. Tocco says growers need to try to keep their workforce separated to the best of their ability.

“Whenever possible, try really hard to make sure that you’ve got enough distance between your workers because if one worker goes down, they’re out for two to three weeks,” he said. “If you’ve got multiple crews, keep those teams the same so you’re not mixing between groups. [In case] if one crew gets it, you’re not down the entirety of your workforce.”

Hand sanitizer might be good in a pinch, but it’s no replacement for soap and water. You probably don’t have sinks in the fields, but there are economical ways to set up portable handwashing stations.

“For $20, you can put together portable handwash stations that’s an old 50-cup coffeemaker that has a little knob, a catch basin, soap, water, towels and some place to put the towels—washing for 20 seconds regularly,” said Tocco.

Tocco also advises farmers to have employees report when they’re feeling sick. The Equal Employment Opportunity issued new guidelines to help farmers identify if employees are sick or not. For more information on keeping produce workers safe, visit MSU Agrifood Safety.