COVID-19 means harvest will be ‘especially challenging’

You need all hands on deck, but what if someone shows symptoms of a cold or flu?

This year’s harvest is not going to be a normal one — and farmers and their families need to make adjustments accordingly, says the executive director of AgSafe Alberta.

Jody Wacowich.
photo: Supplied

“It’s a significant challenge on farms because we’re looking at a cropping season that could last from now until November, so we have to manage people through the next three months,” said Jody Wacowich.

Ideally a farm crew would stay as a tight cohort during that time, but that’s not very realistic. People will need to go home, and kids will be going back to school, and that adds additional risk, she said.

“It’s especially challenging because the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other things,” said Wacowich. “We know that when kids go back to school, there’s always some kind of bug that goes around in September and everyone gets a bit sniffly.”

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If a worker picks up some of those symptoms — even if it’s just a cold — they must take time off to isolate and should try to get a COVID-19 test, she said.

“When we talk about farm safety, it’s risk management on the farm. This is a big risk to the farm if you were to lose several members of your harvest crew, during the nicest days of harvest, because they’ve got to be at home isolating or because they get COVID-19. Suddenly you don’t have enough bodies to drive the combines when they should be running.”

AgSafe Alberta has created a COVID-19 assessment chart that farmers can use each morning to check if their team members have symptoms.

But the bottom line is that anyone with cold- or flu-like symptoms shouldn’t be coming to the farm. And if they do, they should be sent home immediately.

“Even if it is just a cold, we don’t want to bring others in contact with that,” said Wacowich. “This is the time of year in agriculture where we tend to run everybody pretty hard to get everything do ne. You get fatigued and worn out as the season goes on, and that increases your ability to pick up those colds and expose yourself to those things.”

That means everyone should have ample time to rest and reduce the chance of picking up colds and viruses, she said.

If you can, assign a single operator for every piece of equipment.

“That’s an ideal situation, but it’s not always possible,” said Wacowich.

She said people should disinfect and wipe down the cab between users. In the shop, people should maintain proper social distance, and wipe down every tool after use.

“Reduce the risks as much as possible so we can get through the harvest season without a lot of downtime,” said Wacowich.

Every vehicle on the farm should have hand sanitizer in it.

When it comes to feeding a crew, especially if they’re not isolated to the farm, look at individual meals, rather than bringing out a big pot of chili for everyone.

“Put the food in individual thermoses and have a couple of sets of thermoses. Lunch goes out and the thermoses get washed off/rinsed off on the lawn before they come back to the house and potentially expose the person working in the kitchen. There may be someone who is a little older or higher risk working in the kitchen supporting the farm crew. It’s people like that we have to consider as well.”

Retired farmers helping out at harvest are at higher risk. Those people may be the ones who get assigned to one specific piece of equipment.

It’s important to have communications about safety on the farm before everything gets started, said Wacowich.

People need to know what should happen if there is potential exposure and how you manage that risk. Employees might want to talk with their employers about potential situations that may arise, such as childcare arrangements if a child gets sick.

“If you come down with this and are down for two weeks, is there someone in place who can step in? Is there something that can be done?”

Everyone should be prepared to adapt, and be aware that there may be changes. Employers should make sure employees are feeling safe and healthy, so they can continue to do their jobs.

Producers may want to identify COVID-19 as a hazard on their farm, and do a hazard assessment.

“In doing all these steps, you have identified it, and by putting it on paper, you have identified your plan — here are all the things and here’s how we’re going to mitigate it,” she said, adding that will come in handy in case you run into an Occupational Health and Safety issue.

The COVID-19 Signs and Symptoms Self-assessment Chart can be found online. Bigger operations may want to use apps to monitor their employee’s potential COVID-19 symptoms, said Wacowich. Microsoft has a free app for that purpose, but she said she hasn’t personally tried it and there are other apps available.

Everyone should also sign up for MyHealth Records in case they need to take a COVID-19 test. This will provide test results faster than waiting for a phone call.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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