Coronavirus: Advice on farm staff safety and harvest labour

The coronavirus pandemic has put a new focus on family and worker safety and wellbeing as it rampages through communities.

In a work context, the virus is a health and safety issue, falling under the general duty of care of employers to provide a safe working environment.

“Your primary driver should be adherence to safety law and to the basic principle of protecting your team and, indirectly, their loved ones, some of whom may well be classified as vulnerable,” says Oliver Dale, managing director of consultancy Safety Revolution.

See also: Coronavirus advice for managing and keeping staff safe

For example, many farmers and their workers live with aged parents or other family members who may also have serious underlying health conditions.

Preventing infection

Employers need to demonstrate that they have taken all steps so far as reasonably practicable to prevent workers from becoming infected.

“This principle and its effective implementation will also be critical to defending any claims from employees where they allege that they have been infected at work,” says Mr Dale.

“These scenarios may seem extreme or currently on the periphery of the Covid-19 crisis, but they could, as the pandemic unfolds and as the wider consequences come more to the fore, become very real situations that will need to be addressed.”

Make contingency plans

Key workers on farm may have specialist skills or experience and contingency plans must be made in case they fall ill, are injured, or have to go into isolation.

The relatively small, specialist teams working on most farm types mean it’s important to consider what would happen in such circumstances.

Regular reviews help keep things straight

  • Keep up with government guidance on Covid-19.
  • Ensure that you or your managers give all employees and workers clear guidance, with regular updates on correct use of equipment, social distancing, basic hygiene and segregation of activities wherever possible.
  • Regularly refresh and record these communications. It will be important to be able to prove that these basic controls have been implemented effectively and daily disciplines maintained, says Mr Dale.
  • Employers must not only set out policies, they must also monitor that they are being adhered to and not simply devolve this to staff.

This applies equally to all farm types, but for arable businesses, this time before harvest provides a good opportunity to review roles and capabilities.

For example, is training needed or could new routines be introduced to put employees and the business in a better position to cope with this?

Safe working under Covid-19

  • Consider how best to continue operations while managing risk and maintaining biosecurity.
  • Staff should only come to work if they are well, have no symptoms and if no one in their household is showing symptoms.
  • Send home immediately any staff member who develops symptoms.
  • Consider also sending home others who have been in contact with the person showing symptoms, as a precaution.
  • Employers can insist that all team members have a coronavirus test – this would come under an employer’s duty to provide a safe working environment. It would be the employer’s responsibility to organise the test and staff must be given paid work time in which to go and take the test.
  • Vehicles should not be shared. Where this is unavoidable, cabs should be fully disinfected between users, including door handles, steering wheel and controls.
  • Implement additional hygiene routines, especially where kit such as a grain dryer and other environmental controls (for example, in pig and poultry units) are used by different team members. Wipe down with suitable materials any kit that is touched.
  • Carry out pressure washing carefully to reduce the risk of virus in the air. Keep in mind the risk from likely convection currents where fine misting operations, such as in poultry houses, need to be carried out. Extra protective equipment and new routines may be needed here.
  • Keep face-to-face communications to a minimum, even where social distancing rules of 2m are adhered to. Communicate by phone and radio wherever possible. Staff should in any case have all relevant contact numbers.
  • Avoid and discourage farm visitors wherever possible. Essential visitors might include machinery repair mechanics and delivery drivers. Ensure the 2m rule and hygiene guidelines are followed.
  • Increase and maintain hygiene measures; handwashing facilities should be readily available. Provide running water and soap for handwashing – do not rely on gels as dirt must be removed from skin for these to be effective.
  • Remind employees to wash their hands more frequently and that coughs and sneezes must be into a tissue and disposed of at the earliest opportunity.
  • Close tea rooms and communal staff welfare areas where possible. Staff should provide their own daily refreshments.
  • Toilet facilities can be kept open but strict hygiene practice must be observed – consider providing disposable seat covers. All surfaces touched must be cleaned at each use.

Seasonal and harvest labour considerations

Harvest and other seasonal work often means bringing temporary staff on to the farm, and many employers are concerned about the added risk this may bring to team members and their immediate family, says Mr Dale.

“The rules around isolation and lockdown may change between now and harvest, but in the meantime it will be important to make any particular or special expectations clear to candidates at the start of the hiring process,” he says.

This will include whether you want to test candidates once you’ve identified those you want to employ, he suggests.

“You may also want to try to maintain a ring-fenced environment by, for example, restricting their living arrangements and housing them on farm, or asking them to observe special social distancing arrangements for their non-work hours during employment with you.

“Each of these requires detailed and careful assessment and are likely to need specialist advice, including on what employers can and cannot do legally.”

Harvest also means long hours and potentially a high pressure, stressful working environment which, if mixed with a “tough guy” approach, can raise the risk of accidents and illness.

“Ensure that appropriate breaks are taken. Long working hours can pull down the immune system, you might want to suggest that staff take vitamins and/or other supplements.”

Mask advice

  • Face masks, where appropriate, would be regarded as “reasonably practicable”, so give this careful consideration. Masks can restrict the outward projection of micro droplets from the wearer.
  • Masks also restrict the wearer from touching their nose and mouth, reducing the potential for transferring any virus from hands to parts of the body where it may be more readily absorbed.
  • Disposable masks should be single use only and disposed of in a sealed bag. Hands should be washed immediately.
  • Reusable masks should be washed at 60C and carefully stored when not in use.
  • For both types of masks, the wearer must ensure there is no gaping around the edge of the mask, the fit is good and a clean-shaven policy must be in place.

Government guidance criticised

Recent government guidance has been criticised in relation to its clarity and the way it can or should be interpreted, says Mr Dale.

“With the lack of any precedent, it could be said that the government is testing the system: that it actually wants patterns of behaviour to be inconsistent and that it wants to see variability in order to assess the impact of that variability across the population.

“This potentially exposes all of us to varying levels of risk as different methods are tested so employers need to keep up with changing guidance.

“History suggests that this disease will return with a second and possibly a third wave, that it will mutate and that the second wave [potentially mutated] will be more severe than the first.”

With the possibility that the disease will be with us to a greater or lesser extent for the next two years and possibly longer, businesses should consider how to protect commercial operations from what is essentially a safety hazard, says Mr Dale.