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Coronavirus
Strawberry field workers Tim Hearden
Farmworkers pick strawberries in a field in Watsonville, Calif., in 2019.

Growers move to protect farmworkers from virus

Laborers vulnerable to COVID-19 as they serve an essential industry

Growers are urged to take measures to protect farmworkers from the coronavirus, including by implementing strict hygiene rules and disbursing laborers so that they’re more than 6 feet apart.

Farm laborers are among workers “on the front lines” serving what federal officials consider to be an essential industry, and many wouldn’t have access to unemployment insurance, child care or health care if they weren’t working, said Amy Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health for the Migrant Clinicians Network.

In addition to strict hand-washing and social distancing protocols, farms should isolate any worker that might be sick, provide training on COVID-19 to workers, make sure sleeping quarters are well ventilated and keep people 6 feet apart and make sure all surfaces are meticulously cleaned and disinfected, the Salisbury, Md.-based Liebman said in a March 25 webinar.

More vans and buses should be provided if possible to carry workers so they’re not crammed together, the vehicles should be regularly cleaned, and barns and nurseries should have proper ventilation, she said.

Taking precautions

“Our workers – particularly workers on the front line – need to be wearing personal protective equipment,” Liebman told about 300 webinar attendees, most of whom were health professionals and those who work with migrant laborers.

“Our workers have a right to a safe and healthy workplace,” she said. “The laws that are in place need to be followed.”

On Michael Vasey’s Lindauer River Ranch in Red Bluff, Calif., 10 employees are preparing equipment for harvest, pruning and mowing orchards and doing other typical farm work, he said. The 600-acre farm grows walnuts, prunes and wheat and also has a prune dryer.

“We are continuing to work,” Vasey told Farm Press. “We are taking precautions for social distancing, washing hands, sanitation and that kind of thing. We’re telling people if they feel sick at all to not come in.”

Ranch workers already scatter throughout the property, but crew leaders changed the site of their morning meeting from a room to outside, he said.

“We have made some changes, but not ones that will greatly affect our operations,” he said. “They’re just the precautions everyone is taking.”

A critical industry

The federal Coronavirus Task Force on March 19 labeled food supply as a “critical infrastructure industry,” requiring the industry to continue operations to the greatest extent possible. Food and agriculture workers deemed essential by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security include:

  • Food manufacturer employees and their supplier employees—to include those employed in food processing (packers, meat processing, cheese plants, milk plants, produce, etc.) facilities; livestock, poultry, seafood slaughter facilities; pet and animal feed processing facilities; human food facilities producing by-products for animal food; beverage production facilities; and the production of food packaging.
  • Farmworkers employed in animal food, feed, and ingredient production, packaging, and distribution; manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of veterinary drugs; truck delivery and transport; farm and fishery labor needed to produce the food supply.
  • Farmworkers and support service workers to include those who field crops; commodity inspection; fuel ethanol facilities; storage facilities; and other agricultural inputs.
  • Employees and firms supporting food, feed, and beverage distribution, including warehouse workers, vendor-managed inventory controllers and blockchain managers.
  • Workers supporting the sanitation of all food manufacturing processes and operations from wholesale to retail.
  • Workers in food testing labs in private industries and in institutions of higher education.
  • Employees of companies engaged in the production of chemicals, medicines, vaccines, and other substances used by the food and agriculture industry, including pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, minerals, enrichments, and other agricultural production aids.
  • Animal agriculture workers to include those employed in veterinary health; manufacturing and distribution of animal medical materials, animal vaccines, animal drugs, feed ingredients, feed, and bedding, etc.; transportation of live animals, animal medical materials; transportation of deceased animals for disposal; raising of animals for food; animal production operations; slaughter and packing plants and associated regulatory and government workforce.
  • Workers who support the manufacture and distribution of forest products, including, but not limited to timber, paper, and other wood products.
  • Employees engaged in the manufacture and maintenance of equipment and other infrastructure necessary to agricultural production and distribution.

Different from flu

Edward Zuroweste, the MCN’s founding medical director, cautions that COVID-19 differs from the normal flu and other viruses in that it is spreading much faster and infecting more people. Also, unlike the flu and other viruses, there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, he said during the webinar.

“It’s definitely worse than the flu,” said Zuroweste, who is based in Austin, Texas. “That’s why we’re going to all these extreme methods.”

The virus can spread from person to person through contact, such as with a handshake or touching a doorknob, and the virus enters the body when the person touches his or her face, he said. The virus can stay on surfaces for up to 2 days, he said.

“Any public areas that somebody else might have touched that you touch, you can get it that way,” Zuroweste said. “To the best of our knowledge, it doesn’t travel through the air that well,” which is the reason for maintaining 6 feet of distance, he said.

Growers have already implemented personal hygiene practices as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule, to prevent the spread of microbes onto food in growing and packing environments. But it’s also critical for COVID-19 because the virus is “easy to kill” by thoroughly washing hands, Zuroweste said.

Zuroweste and other clinicians fear that personal protective equipment used by pesticide applicators will be taken away and sent to hospitals, where there’s a huge need for protective equipment, he said.

PPE important

“Those people spraying pesticides need PPE and it’s not going to be available to them,” he said. “That doesn’t make the farmworker any safer using pesticides, so something has to be done.”

For its part, the MCN is working with growers to improve protections for workers while also urging policymakers to enact or enforce regulations, including by strengthening legal protections for access to medical care regardless of immigration status, Liebman said.

“It’s our job to make sure we are providing evidence-based information,” she said. “We need facts … We need to present it in a language and way that the people we serve understand.”

At Vasey’s Northern California farm, workers and supervisors are mindful of the danger.

“We are considered essential, so we’re plugging along,” he said.

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