Social distancing among employees

Jul 7, 2020
Growers strive for safe workplaces during pandemic

U.S. specialty crop growers this spring prepared safer workplaces and routines for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federally, agricultural workers are considered an essential job, allowing the work to continue. But individual growers and industry groups are trying to keep those essential employees in a safe environment.

“We went into action right away to figure out what was needed in the field,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission. “So, we created a number of tools, including ranch signage and education materials that they can hand out to workers, and even training videos and audio announcements. We weren’t waiting for any agencies to tell us what to do. We based all our guidance on what the best guidance that was coming out of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), that came out of the state of California, and we tailored it just for our strawberry fields and we find that a lot of us have appreciated it, or have adopted it or shared it.”

The guidelines are labeled “I Pick Safety. For Me. For All.” They include recommendations for illness prevention on and off the farm and are available in Spanish and English. The California Strawberry Commission’s audio and video resources are also available in Mixtec, which O’Donnell said is the most predominant indigenous Mexican language spoken in the fields.

“We also started writing PSA’s (public service announcements) for Spanish-language radio, the predominant stations that we know workers listen to along the coast in central California, and we’ve also been hosting an hour Saturday mornings on Radio Indígena, the Spanish and indigenous language which runs out of Ventura County,” O’Donnell said. “And then we’ve been having guests on our show each week who are medical professionals, people who help dispel myths about coronavirus and COVID-19, and help really advise people about what to watch for, what to do to protect yourself, and what to do if you feel you are sick.”

Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (CFVGA) reports its members are going the extra mile to make sure things are safe.

Petrocco Farms in Brighton, Colorado, is encouraging its domestic and foreign guest workers to stay home if they are sick – if they do stay home while sick, Petrocco will continue to pay them. All of its workers have been instructed to use social distancing and to wash their hands often. The farm also has two different quarantine areas, if workers come down with the virus. In the fields, workers are spread out every other row and social distancing precautions are also being taken in transporting workers and in the packing sheds.

Finding personal protection equipment (PPE) and sanitation equipment for growers and packers is a vital issue, said CFVGA Executive Director Marilyn Bay Drake.

“Some of our customers through their shipping channels and retail supply have connected us with their PPE suppliers, ensuring the growers whom they buy from are supplied and safe,” said Joe Petrocco, chairman of the CFVGA Labor Committee. “We have enough, now, for the season.”

O’Donnell pointed out that orders to cover one’s face aren’t so difficult in a region where workers already are covering up.

“Certainly, things as heavy-duty as an N-95 mask – those are still the requirements for handling pesticides, fertilizers,” she said. “But in terms of being out in the field and using face coverings, farmworkers already do use face coverings. They’re outdoors all day and use face coverings to protect their skin from UV light.”

Drake, who fields a lot of questions from the CVGA’s 250 members, said grower concerns have shifted from where to find PPE equipment to whether harvest supplies are available and if transportation would be held up.

“Now, I believe growers are beginning to question market volatility and whether or not they will be able to sell the crops they are now planting. CFVGA is working hard to provide growers with resources and information,” she said. “We have a produce directory that will allow buyers, from individuals to commercial purchasers, to search Colorado growers by the produce available and marketing channel. We hope this will help connect buyer and seller as we roll into harvest season.”

Although the year may present unique challenges for worker safety, growers – owners and employees alike – are still turning out to the fields to plant, tend and harvest crops.

Asked where the growers find motivation for the work, Petrocco said, “debt, immediate and employee family financial obligations, (concern for) employees and their families, and land and water stewardship.”

The California Strawberry Commission in April wrote an open letter to its supply chain partners, promising to “harvest every box” in the face of challenges presented by the pandemic.

O’Donnell said that while California strawberry farmers are an optimistic lot in general, they also “have to be optimistic, only because they planted that crop last November.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor; featured photo at top: Social distancing among employees and workplace sanitation are valid worker safety issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: California Strawberry Commission





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