Even though farms and ranches are working through the coronavirus pandemic, it's not business as usual in rural America.
"It is not a good idea to do things the way we've always done them," says Mike Keenan, risk control manager, Gallagher National Risk Control. "We need to take steps to prevent coronavirus from taking hold in our workplaces."
Keenan discussed those necessary steps during a March 23 webinar sponsored by AgriSafe Network with support from Gallahger.
First chore, Keenan says, is to develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan.
"The time is now; we are well into this and it's emerging and changing rapidly. We want to get ahead of this as soon as we possibly can. It's time to prepare and implement effective infection prevention control measures in our worksites and to develop policies and procedures to identify individuals on our teams who may be sick and showing symptoms or are just not feeling well."
A big part of that plan, he adds, is to encourage sick employees to stay home, "not only for their own benefit, but also for workplace continuity. To keep our businesses up and running, we've got to keep everybody as healthy as possible."
Many farmers, farm managers and other employees will come to work no matter how they're feeling "because the job's gotta be done," he says. "In this case, it's vitally important for sick workers to stay home until they are free of symptoms. Even then, they must follow the guidance of their doctors before returning to work."
Keenan says farm owners and managers should develop, implement and communicate workplace procedures.
He says assessing risks is imperative; then make sure to follow those standards to keep employees safe and healthy.
• Develop a task force.
• Encourage employee leadership.
• Managers should take a leading role and encourage frontline employees to become engaged as they understand the risk of exposures within operations.
• Engage everyone.
• Understand where potential for exposures exists.
• Complete a risk assessment.
Keenan says the CDC and the EPA offer excellent guidance for individual workplaces.
Keenan says farm workers depend on each other to be there every day, whether it's milking cows, delivering pigs, or doing any of hundreds of farm chores. Making sure those workers stay healthy is crucial to business continuity.
"We hear a lot about social distancing, but for farms we need to consider physical distancing," Keenan says. "We don't want to separate ourselves socially from our coworkers, our neighbors and our family. But we need to develop physical distancing guidelines so we're not increasing potential of exposure to disease.
"Farmers need to prepare and set up workplaces to limit exposure. Farm workers often share tools and equipment they use on a regular basis. I think about a tractor repair shop where several mechanics keep equipment up and running. They're sharing tools and equipment on a regular basis. How do you manage that?"
What about personal protection devices?
"You need to consider more than just the 95 dust masks. How about boots, gloves, face shields and all those other things shared by several employees.
"How about shared vehicles and equipment? Several employees are likely to share a pickup or a tractor."
He says common spaces such as locker rooms, offices, break rooms and kitchens pose exposure risk and should be considered in the assessment.
"Once you've done that risk assessment," Keenan says, "adapt best practices to mitigate risks. Consider eliminating exposures where possible. Provide separation between employees. Maybe you need to stagger shifts, mealtimes and breaks."
He says eating lunch together is part of the culture on a farm but one that should be avoided for the time being. "Now's not the time for it," he says.
He suggests getting away from shared-equipment practices such as communal boot rooms in livestock operations where employees simply put on the size that fits.
"Maybe it's time for every employee to have his own boots and keep them sanitized every single day. It should be the same with gloves and things like that. It is critical not to have cross-contamination between employees."
Setting up exposure prevention protocols is important, Keenan says, but so is implementation. Communication will be key. "It is critical to get information to employees."
Explain and expect safe work practices such as disinfecting tools and equipment. Frequent hand washing is essential.
Many operations may not have convenient hand washing facilities, Keenan says. "Some are too far apart and sometimes not many are available. Managers may need to improve on that, increase opportunities to wash up. And if they don't have adequate soap and water facilities, provide hand sanitizer. Maybe managers should put hand sanitizer in all the vehicles."
Keenan says exposure prevention also should include updates on when to use personal protection devices and when to preserve them, "especially the respirators and the 95 masks."
He advises "stepping up training of the entire staff. We need to emphasize the why of what we're doing. Our goals should be: No.1 keep them and their families healthy. No. 2 help them understand that they are crucial to the farm's success.
"Farm success depends on the methods and procedures in place to ensure a safe and healthy workforce and to maintain operations," Keenan says. "Monitoring and managing the procedures is crucial. Make sure you're overcommunicating to employees, and make sure that everyone understands the procedures. As things change, keep them updated on progress and on critical areas that need more attention."
As an insurance company executive, Keenan fields questions about how COVID-19 might affect workers compensation insurance.
The key message, he says, is to stay in touch with a carrier or insurance broker. "Each policy is a little different, but generally compensable work comp claims are likely to come down to whether or not the disease is considered occupational. Was it contracted during the course of normal employment, due to conditions that are very specific to the employee's work?"
He says healthcare workers and first responders, for instance, have direct contact with individuals who may have exposure to COVID-19. "Those individuals would most likely be covered. Incidental contact or no direct contact other than they would have in the public would probably not be covered. Cover those questions with your carrier or your broker."
He says agriculture would generally be considered lower risk "because it's not part of your job duties to care for people who have the COVID-19 virus." He recommends looking at guidance from OSHA on developing a plan to deal with these situations.
Keenan says COVID-19 is an unprecedented threat to the nation and countries around the world. Even though farmers work in areas considered fairly remote, they are still at risk.
"But people in agriculture are extremely resilient and resourceful as they provide an abundant food supply." Making sure the farm workplace is safe and the workforce is healthy is crucial to guarantee that the rest of society continues to have that consistent and healthy food supply, he says.