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Practical tips to minimise the risk of COVID-19 impacting harvest

Business Management

APAL’s Richelle Zealley spoke to Dr John Parkes, Senior Medical Advisor, from the Victorian Department of Health, COVID-19 Response Team to determine what apple and pear businesses can do to look after their most important assets and minimise the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak interrupting harvest with an already limited labour supply.  

Due to the seasonal nature of orcharding work and critical windows to pick and pack fruit; a reported shortage of staff; and movement of workers between businesses and orchards; it’s important to have protections in place to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the interruptions caused by a workplace outbreak.

There’s a suite of ways to do this, with making time to get the business’ main assets, aka staff, vaccinated as soon as possible key to a smoother harvest.   Dr Parkes recommends that all employers have a range of active control measures, including encouraging vaccination and a practical COVIDSafe plan-of sorts for the business. “When businesses have these multiple layers of control it shows they’re working to keep themselves, the farm and workers safe,” Dr Parkes said. 

“The idea behind developing practical control measures is to try and stop the virus coming onto farmBut if does get onto farm, we want to stop it spreading and prevent the whole site becoming ‘Tier 1’.  

Employers also have a duty of care to keep their workforce safe and there have been some successful claims from people who have gotten COVID at work. WorkSafe (or each state’s equivalent) may fine you if they feel the business is negligent.” 

Why should businesses in states without COVID-19 outbreaks be prepared too?

As the country begins to reopen, more people will be travelling freely. “The movement of seasonal workers coming onto properties from various locations including capital cities and other states will also increase likelihood of COVID-19 spreading,” Dr Parkes said. 

“In terms of seasonal workers visiting the region for harvest, it’s important to think about their accommodation – some will stay on farm and others will be in town. If you can group those staying in the same accommodation or those travelling together into a working bubble that will help reduce the risk of the virus spreading too.” 

What are COVIDSafe control measures? 

A COVIDSafe plan doesn’t need to be a multi-page document that will sit in a drawer until it’s required. “It’s important for businesses to get a nice, tight, workable plan to ensure they can continue to operate,” Dr Parkes said.  

“Introducing a COVID Marshall or two during peak times is a great idea. As the business owner you can’t have eyes in the back of your head, the COVID Marshall can ensure bubbles of workers are separated, everyone’s flowing into the lunchroom the correct way, at the right time and no one’s stopping to chat in the car park after work.” 

It’s important these people are engaging, the COVID Marshall can also keep an eye on public health orders, locations of outbreaks and then share relevant information in an easytounderstand format with employees via channels such as WhatsApp, WeChat or text message. 

1. Limit visitors to the business 

Understand whos coming onto your property and whether their visit is necessary during harvest. Ensure your system effectively records who is onsite and anyone they may have direct contact with. “If someone needs to come onto the property, limit their contact with employees,” Dr Parkes said. 

 “Ask yourself:  

  • Can an agronomist work in isolation?  
  • Can the maintenance worker complete their tasks away from picker and packer bubbles?  
  • Can your transport driver load and unload produce without directly contacting anyone else?”   

QR Codes can be used within the business however, these are a secondary resource for contact tracers who prefer to work with data provided by the business directly 

2. Make effective use of workforce bubbles 

“We’re finding that small bubbles of 6-8 workers are effective and it’s important to keep these groups for the duration of the season, where possible. Keep those in regular contact outside of work together, for example, people living in the same household, those carpooling and anyone with children at the same school. 

“If seasonal workers come to the orchard through a labour hire provider, even for a short period, try to keep these groups working together as well. 

“And of course, if a worker is unwell, they must stay home. Some businesses continue to implement daily temperature checks, but we’ve found they haven’t shown very much. If anything, it works as a deterrent – if workers think they’re going to be checked they may not come to work while unwell. 

“We want to try and isolate people as much as possible, during picking season is not the time to have a big social life. 

3. Social distancing – stay 1.5 metres apart 

Social distancing may be challenging in the orchard, especially while on a platform during picking or completing certain tasks in the packing shed. However, if worker bubbles are tight and maintained, a focus on social distancing in ‘common areas’ such as lunchrooms, bathroom facilities and when employees are signing in/out is more important. 

“Many businesses are finding the COVIDspread is happening in the lunchroom, this is why we need to keep small groups, or bubbles, apart as much as possible,” Dr Parkes said. “Some options could be to stagger lunch breaks or provide multiple facilities if your business is large enough. It’s also important to undergo regular cleaning throughout the day.” 

4. Regular cleaning and maintenance 

Encourage employees to practice good hygiene which includes washing hands regularly especially after a break, visit to the bathroom and eating or smoking. This can be reiterated through signage in these areas. 

It’s also important to thoroughly clean and wipe down all common areas, especially lunchrooms, bathroom facilities and shared equipment.  

5. Encourage vaccination 

Vaccination is one of many layers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and some states have mandated that essential workers, such as those in the horticulture industry, are required to be vaccinated to continue working“We shouldn’t think just because people are vaccinated we can slacken off with all the other controls,” Dr Parkes said. “The benefit of having people vaccinated is to reduce the risk of someone with active COVID working closely with others.”  

It may be effective for employers encouraging vaccinations to offer incentives such as paid vaccination leave or support for employees in getting to their appointments. Some businesses are also offering vouchers to all fully-vaccinated staff, ensuring that any incentives comply with the relevant laws.   

Dr Parkes recommends you request to see a copy of the vaccination certificate and you can then note in your records it has been sighted. “Keeping a record of a vaccination certificate means you need to maintain a record of medical records vaccination, adding a whole layer of complexity,” Dr Parkes said.  

If an outbreak occurred in your business, are you ready to deal with it?

To ensure your COVIDSafe plan is effective Dr Parkes recommends running through some scenario planning. “As an example, pick a worker at random and review the process as if you were doing contact tracing on them, prepare the spreadsheets and information for the department, even if you’re not sending them in,” Dr Parkes said. 

“Ask yourself questions likewas I able to keep workers apart? Has anyone shared a cigarette break? Who had lunch togetherThis type of exercise might highlight any weak points such as the crossover between shifts, pickers and packers 

“Overall, make sure your bubbles are tight.” 

Business support during COVID

There are several support services available to assist business owners work through COVIDSafe planning, provide general advice and help access specific funding and grants.  

A great place to start is FarmHub, an Australian Government initiative administered by the National Farmers Federation. FarmHub provides useful links to a range of state-and-national based services providing: Health Information, Business Assistance, Government Responses, Information for Employers, State-specific Assistance and Border Control. 

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