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Whether your agribusiness’ essential status means your operation has been uninterrupted or you’re transitioning to a more normal operation after making adjustments since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the virus poses major workforce management challenges. Failing to overcome them could not just extend potential disruptions—it could open you up to legal liability from employees if you’re not preventing infections through the right mix of personal protective equipment (PPE), administrative and engineering controls.

Shoring up liability vulnerabilities

As an employer, it’s important to shore up your liability vulnerabilities as employees resume their work on your agricultural operation.

The first step in the process is the basic realization that there’s no precedent for the disruption COVID-19 has caused to industries like agriculture in the last century. And federal- and state-level recommendations and guidelines are always evolving. They frequently change based on case numbers and researchers’ progress in learning about the virus and ways to prevent and slow infections. That means staying ahead of any litigious action to which you may be vulnerable as an employer will require adaptability and communication with your workforce before, during and after every step you take to ensure a safe, healthy workplace.

Awareness and understanding of evolving science-based regulations and federal employment recommendations should be applied to three basic areas of emphasis in what you as an employer can do to help protect your workforce and shore up any vulnerability to legal liability:

  1. Keep COVID-19 out of your business. Provide screening, namely elevated body temperature, for workers entering your premises, as well as at-home monitoring capabilities to ensure no one with COVID-19 symptoms is permitted entry. As monitoring and treatment capabilities change, be sure to provide the most up-to-date screening you can. Check with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for the latest screening and testing protocols and more.
  2. Stop the virus from spreading. If your operation has been curtailed because of COVID-19, you may have workers returning. As the number of employees on site increases, so does potential exposure to the virus. Make sure you’re following the latest federal guidelines for social distancing, adequately sanitizing and providing PPE for workers. Communicate any changes in engineering or administrative controls you’re making to follow federal regulations.
  3. Be prepared. Like some meat processing facilities experienced early in the pandemic, COVID-19 infections can still spread despite the best efforts to control it. Having concrete, effective plans and communicating those plans to workers will help the entire workforce feel prepared and confident, and demonstrate you’re making every effort to support the health and well-being of your workforce.

By thinking in the context of these three areas, you’ll likely make decisions that will show members of your workforce that you care about their well-being on the job and are taking an active role in ensuring it. See more on agricultural workforce health and safety from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

What’s next?

That’s a big question many employers are working hard to answer as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, and there’s good and bad news. The bad news is there’s no easy answer; how the pandemic unfolds will dictate any future required action to continue to maintain worker health and safety, and prevent potential legal liability in the process. The good news is there are a few best practices that can help you ensure you’re doing what you can to help mitigate risk:

  • Follow the leaders: Continue to follow official guidance from local, state and federal health and workplace safety agencies like the CDC, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state and federal health and medical officials.
  • Remember your ABCs: Always be communicating. You likely have a plan for how to keep your workers safe on the job. And that plan is probably changing often. Make sure you’re communicating those changes frequently with your workforce as well as with your customers.
  • Stick to your guns: Just because policies and plans may change often to ensure adequate health and safety measures for your workers, that doesn’t mean you should waver in enforcing them. Once you have a risk mitigation plan in place based on official guidance, stick to that plan and be attentive to any changes in guidance from official sources like the CDC.

Litigious action is a real possibility surrounding the spread of COVID-19 infections among agricultural workers, but that doesn’t mean employers have the deck stacked against them. By following official guidance in developing sound policies to preserve your workforce’s health and safety from the virus, you can minimize your liability exposure. Then, stay informed, be ready to adapt to changes in the pandemic and health recommendations and regulations and communicate your efforts to workers and customers to continue operations with minimal disruption.

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