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Shepparton outbreak tests COVIDSafe plan


Key points: 

  • COVIDsafe plan is ‘new nomal’ 
  • Track local exposure sites and text daily updates to workers 
  • Translate COVID-19 info for multicultural workforce 
  • Work in ‘bubbles’ to minimise contact 
  • Encourage staff to vaccinate 

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Sally Plunkett manages a clear COVIDSafe plan for the orchard

When an outbreak of COVID-19 started spreading rapidly through Shepparton on Friday, 20 August, apple and pear grower Sally Plunkett was very glad that Plunkett Orchards already had a tried and tested COVIDSafe plan ready to go. 

With 70–80 staff in the midst of pruning and packing, it became a daily logistical challenge for the Ardmona orchardists to monitor who may be affected, update the list of exposure sites, translate information for multicultural workers, and modify permits as they moved around four different farms. 

“Being able to swing into action quickly for this more serious Delta outbreak was critical. And it happened much more easily because we had all of the processes, posters, and knowledge developed and checked by DHHS during previous outbreaks,” Sally says. 

The Shepparton outbreak unfolded very rapidly on a Friday, when a number of local schools were put under a stop and stay order. Several of the Plunkett’s staff members, including key managers and supervisors, had to leave work immediately.  Other Tier 1 exposure sites were announced soon after, taking out another layer of staff. By the end of the weekend approximately 30 per cent of Shepparton’s population was in isolation.   

Texting local exposure sites a priority

Filling the staff gaps was a priority, followed by daily communication with workers and careful management of break times and shift groups. 

“I didn’t anticipate how tricky it would be to provide up to date information about local exposure sites and get everyone to carefully read it every day,” Sally says. 

“It’s a bit clunky navigating around the site so we do a summary and send it out each night on social streams, as well as print it for the next morning. It seems to be working – all staff are familiar with the exposure sites which is our goal.” 

Then there is the challenge of informing workers for whom English is a second language. 

“For these [ESL] staff, exposure sites can be difficult to understand quickly if we ask them in the rush before shift start in the morning, so the nightly list gives them plenty of time to think about whether they were there or not.”

Information translated for workers

“Our Covid plan is translated into Chinese, Thai and Hindi and is available via staff link on our webpage. Day-to-day communication is facilitated by supervisors with the language skills appropriate to our staff groups,” Sally says. 

“We use WhatsApp for workers in the packing shed and Line for those in the orchard teams, plus text messages and emails. The nightly exposure lists are sent through the same app used for rosters.” 

Over the past 18 months, the Plunketts have tried a variety of methods to safety check employees as they start work, including a written checklist of symptoms and an electronic app version as well as daily temperature checks, which proved problematic on cold winter days when thermometers stopped working. 

During the current outbreak, each staff member is verbally taken through the checklist. If they have symptoms, they know to get tested and not come to work. 

‘Bubbles’ work in orchard and packing shed

Worker permits have been modified and worker ‘bubbles’ defined for the packing shed and orchards. Workers who carpool work in the same bubble. When bus transport is required around the orchard, Sally says workers are required to spread out, wear masks and keep the windows down. Worker bubbles are created mainly through platform groups. 

“At the moment we have five platforms of people pruning apples,” Sally says. “Each of those five are a group that works together and has breaks together, and they only travel to and from work with people in the same bubble.  We hope that if a person is identified as a Tier 1 exposure, then only one worker bubble will be impacted instead of all workers. 

“Those in the packing shed have a set location on their permits, but for the orchard workers we’ve incorporated a checklist of the four different farm sites. They can tick the box as to which farm they’re at on a specific date. 

“We are keeping the apple packing line and pear line groups physically separated at all times. They work in different sheds, have their breaks in different kitchens and use different bathrooms. To make this possible, we’ve needed to dust off some old amenities which are certainly coming in handy.” 

COVIDSafe plan ‘the new normal’

Sally says past lockdowns have established the COVIDSafe fundamentals such as ramping up hygiene with plenty of hand washing and sanitising opportunities, masks indoors and outdoors, physical distancing and additional cleaning of touch points. 

“I based our COVIDSafe plan on a few different industry templates but it was heavily weighted towards assessing the risk for our workplace and environment.”

“We’ve tweaked processes along the way to make it sensible and easy to activate quickly, and now it feels like the ‘new normal’,” Sally said.

“I wouldn’t have picked this outbreak because we felt so safe a few months ago, but that’s a thing of the past. The hardest times are those moments of silence between when you know there is something big on the Covid front but there’s no official advice or information. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can manage it.” 

Workers encouraged to vaccinate

With the farm already a bit behind in pruning after wet weather, Sally says getting critical work done becomes more complicated. With the outbreak reducing their workforce by 25 per cent, the Plunketts are strongly encouraging all staff to be vaccinated. 

“The trees don’t wait, but safety is our highest priority, and we need to balance the risk with critical activities on a day-by-day basis,” Sally says.  

“The packing shed is running on lower staffing levels and while it is safe to do so, we will continue packing for export and domestic orders. 

“That scale of risk will become easier to manage as more staff become vaccinated over the coming weeks.” 

Guidance for vaccination in ag workplaces is available via SafeWork Australia.

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