Industry expert: Ensuring farm worker safety pays off
Farmers worked quickly to shore up supply chain weaknesses exposed by COVID-19. The virus interrupted output, fueled fears about the strength of the supply chain and put farm workers’ health at risk. In the future, these outcomes aren’t inevitable with the right preparedness, says one ag labor health and safety expert.
Close personal contact helps spread COVID-19. While frequent person-to-person contact can make farm workers more susceptible to the virus, on many farms it can be minimized through normal operational protocols.
Protecting workers from something like the transmission of a virus can require added investment. But prioritizing worker health and safety can pay off given its short-term impact on production. It also can lead to long-term improvements in company culture.
Get proactive with worker health and safety
The process starts by creating awareness of the dangers workers face from COVID-19 or a similar danger. If proactive, attentive and quick to protect workers, farm owners and operators can create healthy, productive and resilient workplaces through communication and action.
“I think we have to be more proactive in health and safety education and policies. We have to keep workers safe,” according to Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, CEO of Proteus, Inc., a non-profit devoted to providing health care and educational resources for farm workers. “I think employers need to really prioritize their workers. They should ask themselves ‘What do I really value here?’”
The cost benefits of workplace health and safety
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus interrupted some ag production and processing operations. This led to some disruptions in the supply chains of pork, poultry, eggs and dairy products. The pandemic and its human response also affected ag workers’ ability to do their jobs amidst heightened health and safety concerns. But with strong safety protocols in place, those in many operations can be better protected from the virus. And that can sustain productivity and foster a positive work environment.
“Employers who prioritize health and safety will get massive buy-in from their workforce. It will create more resilience in the operation’s culture. And it helps prevent employee turnover that can be costly for the employer in the long term,” Hoffman-Zinnel said. “A farm’s ROI increases when employers put workers first.”
Strong leadership is key
It takes the right people to put health and safety first on the farm. But in a business strained by tight profit margins, it can be easily overlooked. In the presence of a threat like COVID-19, worker safety and health must be the top priority.
“We need to make sure ag companies and employers recognize how hugely important it is that they do what’s right for their workforce and closely follow strict health and safety protocols,” Hoffman-Zinnel said. “We need the right people in leadership positions who will create these codes of conduct and stick to them.”
Health care and communication technology can help farm owners and managers implement health and safety protocols. For example, telemedicine services that facilitate doctor visits and early diagnoses can enable workers to safely resume working. At the same time, employers may reduce work stoppages and disruptions caused by a pandemic like COVID-19.
“Telemedicine has been a game-changer in providing health-care services, and will remain a huge asset to farm workers,” Hoffman-Zinnel said. “Farmers can partner with community health centers to provide tools like basic broadband service and HIPAA-compliant video conferencing to enable farm workers to have access to the health care services they need and deserve.”
Like Proteus, Inc., Nationwide is committed to protecting the health and safety of agricultural workers. As the #1 insurer of farms and ranches in the U.S., Nationwide has a long history of providing risk management services to help farmers and ranchers keep their workers safe and ensure the success of their operations.
Learn more about Hoffman-Zinnel and Proteus, Inc.’s work on behalf of farm workers at proteusinc.net.