Biosecurity for People: 7 Steps to Protect Farm Workers from COVID-19

Dairy worker milking cows

Biosecurity is second nature to many dairy and livestock producers, so let’s apply that perspective to the current pandemic. First, a quick review of what we know about COVID-19 and how it spreads.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus. The virus can spread from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. For this reason, most transmission is thought to occur between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet).

People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest). However, some spread might be possible before people show symptoms. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. Again, most transmission occurs between people who are in close contact with each other.

A COVID-19 outbreak on a dairy farm could dramatically reduce that farm’s workforce, with catastrophic consequences for everyday operations. In New York State, local health departments have the authority to impose mandatory quarantine for any person who “has been in close contact (6 ft.) with someone who is positive but is not displaying symptoms for COVID-19.” If one worker on your farm tests positive for the new coronavirus, how many other workers would be placed in mandatory quarantine? How would your farm get by if you suddenly lost a significant percentage of your workforce? These questions need to be on every dairy manager’s mind as the industry begins to address this new biosecurity threat.

To manage the human risks associated with COVID-19, every farm operator should be thinking about two things right now: prevention and contingency planning. This article addresses prevention, otherwise known as “biosecurity for people.” Use these seven steps as a guide to develop your own biosecurity program aimed at keeping your farm workforce safe, healthy and productive.

1. Talk with employees about coronavirus.

Talk with your workers early and often about the new coronavirus, how it spreads, and how to prevent transmission. Make sure your employees know how to recognize symptoms of COVID-19. Stress the importance of prevention through frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, and regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. Encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes. If soap and running water are not immediately available, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol. Be sure to model all of the behaviors that you ask your employees to adopt. Encourage employees to ask questions, and be honest if you don’t know the answer. Only share information from reliable sources, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and the NYS Department of Health.

2. Post information about how to prevent the spread of germs.

Visual reminders can help workers change their behavior to prevent the spread of germs. Posting this information can also help to reassure your employees that the farm’s leadership cares about their safety and is taking the coronavirus seriously. Print posters from the NYS Department of Health in English or Spanish. Post this information in employee break rooms, bathrooms, and any other areas where employees gather on the farm. Don’t forget to hang posters inside worker housing too! Hand washing and social distancing behaviors are just as important at home as they are on the job, especially if workers are living close together in group housing.

3. Actively manage cleaning and disinfection.

Adopt OSHA guidelines for routine cleaning and disinfection in the workplace. Set up regular daily and weekly cleaning schedules with assigned responsibility, not only for the workplace but also for employee housing. Provide the necessary cleaning supplies, equipment, and PPE so workers can stick to the schedule. When choosing cleaning chemicals, consult the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) list of disinfectant products registered for use against the novel coronavirus. This list includes more than 300 products, identifies the active ingredient(s) in each product, and specifies the contact time needed to be effective as a disinfectant. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use of all cleaning and disinfection products, including the concentration, method of application, contact time, ventilation, and PPE. The CDC provides additional guidance for cleaning and disinfecting your facility if someone is sick. Similar guidelines are available for cleaning and disinfecting households with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases.

4. Minimize contact between employees in the workplace.

Ask workers to stay at least six feet apart whenever possible to reduce the odds of transmission. Review and update work procedures to support social distancing. Consider adjusting schedules to minimize overlap between shifts. Conduct face-to-face meetings only when necessary, and postpone staff meetings whenever possible. Consider alternative communication technologies to conduct meetings remotely (see below). If you absolutely must meet as a group, conduct meetings in an open space where employees can stay at least six feet apart.

5. Minimize contact with outside service providers.

Dairy operations cannot isolate themselves completely from the outside world, as they depend on regular visits from outside personnel. The milk hauler, veterinarian, breeder, feed supplier, and other deliveries are all essential to ongoing operations. Consider restricting visits from non-essential personnel, and replace in-person farm visits with other forms of communication whenever possible. Ask all visitors to stay at least six feet away from other people on the farm. Many of them have already received this guidance from their employers. Make sure to include surfaces handled by outside visitors in your cleaning and disinfecting routine.

6. Use technology to improve communications.

Identify tools and technologies that your team can use to stay in touch while staying apart. Low-tech tools like white boards can be helpful for recording and sharing information. People with smart phones can take advantage of group texting and free three-way calls (see instructions for Apple and Android phones). Workers can use WhatsApp and FaceTime to make video calls, which can be helpful for troubleshooting livestock or mechanical issues from a distance. For group meetings, try one of several free video conferencing apps: Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts. There are quite a few cloud-based file sharing services, including Google Docs, Dropbox, and Box, that allow workers to create, edit and share digital files from multiple locations. Remind employees not to handle each other’s phones, and be sure to regularly disinfect shared whiteboard markers, keyboards and touch screens, along with other frequently handled items.

7. Tell employees to stay home if they are sick.

Make sure your employees know how to recognize the symptoms of COVID-19, and understand that they must not come to work if they experience any symptoms. This is not a time to tough it out! If a sick employee comes to work, they risk turning an individual problem into a workplace disaster. Consider whether your workers will feel financially or otherwise obligated to come to work if they are sick. This is a good time to review your farm’s sick leave policy, and make sure you understand the new state and federal regulations that require employers to provide emergency paid leave. For more information about this legislation, see NY Farm Bureau’s fact sheets on New York State’s New Emergency Paid Sick Leave For COVID-19 and Federal Emergency Paid Leave During the COVID-19 Outbreak.

This article draws from resources developed by Cornell Ag Workforce Development. To learn more, visit their website on Novel Coronavirus Prevention & Control for Farms and check out this recording of their recent COVID-19 and Your Dairy Webinar.

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3 thoughts on “Biosecurity for People: 7 Steps to Protect Farm Workers from COVID-19

  1. Thank you for this detailed and informative presentation. I’m sending this to the farmers I know for future reference.
    David Williams

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