Businesses, schools and other institutions around the U.S. and world were faced with shutdowns as everyone scrambled to stay ahead of the COVID-19 virus. Though many farm operations and other agribusinesses have remained at least partially operational throughout the pandemic, there is a strong desire to return to normal operations.
That resumption will go a long way to ensuring the food and agricultural supply chain remains intact and continues to meet growing demand even in the face of something like COVID-19. But it can only happen if farm and agribusiness employers are cognizant of worker’s health and safety and the risk the virus poses to sustaining operations in the long term.
Here are a few things to think about as you work toward that goal.
Timing is everything
Even if your farm or agricultural processing business was only partially affected by the pandemic, you’re likely looking to restore operation after even a slowdown. The first question to answer in planning to resume operations is a simple one: When?
It’s not an easy answer, but consulting state and local government guidance, such as your state’s health department, can help clarify your timeframe. Federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also offer a wealth of guidance to help you resume operations safely.
Depending on the exact nature of your agribusiness, U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA) and your state ag department may offer additional resources to help you make an informed decision on when to resume full business operations. Some federal and state agriculture programs were suspended or scaled back early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the restoration of some of them, like the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) audit expiration date extension, may influence your ability to resume full operations. Check with your local USDA or state agricultural department officials to determine if any such modifications could influence your timing.
Know your risks
The risk COVID-19 poses to worker health and safety varies widely depending on factors like location, age and other personal demographics and the type of work done on your operation. Take time to identify key variables that can influence employee risks and any steps you can take to minimize them.
Employees with chronic medical conditions may be more susceptible to serious symptoms if infected by the virus. As the employer, you should prioritize preventing those employees from working in conditions that put them at risk of infection.
Everyone knows about hand-washing and wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the virus, but there are other protective measures you can deploy to help keep workers safe. If close personal contact is required of your workforce, make personal protective equipment (PPE) readily available and consider installing engineering controls like physical barriers or enhanced air filtration systems to prevent person-to-person or airborne transmission of viral particles.
Administrative controls can also help minimize workers’ exposure to COVID-19 transmission risk. By changing work shifts, you can limit the number of workers at your business and encourage social distancing by making it easier, thereby decreasing transmission risk. Other administrative controls include clear strategies for keeping potentially infected workers separated and adjusting specific work processes or equipment to minimize conditions that enable the virus to spread.
If you are still uncertain about when and how to resume full operations at your ag business, here are some more helpful resources to contribute to an informed decision:
Above all, it’s important to be constantly attentive to your workers’ health and ensure that you are providing a safe environment. Doing so will help prevent or ease future work disruptions and help ensure your agri-business is fully productive and contributing to the nation’s food and agricultural supply chain.