Producers in the agricultural industry must often face unexpected, difficult conditions in order to remain profitable. COVID-19 and its effects are simply another challenge that must be managed in order to prioritise the safety and health of producers, farm workers and processors. The healthier the workforce on the farm, the more productive they are.

In a press release issued during lockdown, the CEO of Agbiz, Dr John Purchase, urged the agricultural community to adhere to the lockdown rules and regulations and to hold each other accountable in this regard. But what is expected of workers and employees in terms of adhering to COVID-19 measures and how should these regulations be applied on the farm or in the processing plant?

An essential service

The regulations contained in the Disaster Management Act, 2002 (Act 57 of 2002) regulate various aspects of the state of emergency. The law is also prescriptive in terms of documentation allowing essential service providers to continue their work without hindrance. Under these regulations the agricultural industry has been declared an essential service and is considered indispensable in ensuring food security in the country.

It is essential that producers as well as their employees undergo training. Producers must also share the necessary information with workers and explain how the COVID-19 virus can harm their health. Training initiatives are therefore vital.

Legal provisions

Section 8(2)(b) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993 (Act 85 of 1993) requires that certain practical steps be taken to eliminate workplace hazards. Businesses should also reassess their estimated risks to make provision for the dangers presented by COVID-19.

To promote biosecurity, most farms and processing plants already require employees to wear protective clothing and use protective equipment, but the current situation necessitates additional protection to adequately protect employees against the coronavirus.

According to the Department of Employment and Labour, the onus is on employers to determine the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace. A combination of control measures must be implemented to keep the virus from entering your farm or factory.

One of Agri SA’s posters provided to producers to train their workers.

Measures in the workplace

Administrative measures, maintaining physical distance between workers, and certain health and safety measures will have to be considered to promote adequate protection. These include:

  • Limiting physical contact by maintaining a minimum distance of 1,5m between workers or placing barriers between workstations.
  • Restricting contact between customers and workers.
  • Free access for employees to protective equipment such as face masks and screens, shoe covers, gloves, hair covers and safety goggles where necessary.
  • Ventilation should be improved where necessary.
  • Shift work must be implemented to limit the number of workers in a location.
  • Workers should be informed about the virus and how to stop it from spreading.
  • Hand sanitisers with an alcohol content of 70% should be provided free of charge along with other resources to promote personal hygiene.
  • Vulnerable workers such as pregnant women, disabled people and workers with compromised and weak immune systems or long-term health problems must work from home.
  • Workers’ temperature, as well as other screening tests to detect COVID-19 symptoms immediately, must be taken before each shift.
  • Work equipment and shared spaces such as bathrooms and surfaces that workers come into contact with must be disinfected regularly.
  • A manager must be appointed to ensure that workers are aware of the measures and that it is applied.
  • If a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19, the employer should try to find the cause of the infection and notify the Department of Health.
  • Workers’ transport must be safeguarded by having the appropriate transport permits in place, ensuring that workers always wear their masks and placing distance markers on the floors of the spaces used for transport.

Prevent infections at work

Preventing infection in the workplace is crucial, according to Christo Bester of the LWO Employers Organisation. “Once a COVID-19 positive case is identified, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and the Department of Health will close the workplace until it has been sanitised and disinfected. This brings productivity to a complete standstill,” he explains.

When it comes to how these measures contribute to biosecurity awareness on the farm, Christo says it is the employer’s duty to ensure a safe workplace.

Dr André Louw, an occupational physician, says that while the risk of COVID-19 transmission on farms is fairly low and while it is not always practically feasible to limit the number of workers and shifts, producers should, where possible, still consider alternative staffing options.

“Occupational physicians can help to assess the risk of proposals, but for the most part it remains the employer’s responsibility. Assessing the risk of individuals is also essential in order to identify high-risk workers and activities, and to implement additional safeguards,” he says.

“Farming usually takes place outdoors where the risk of transmission is lower, and farming activities are also well suited to the requirements relating to a healthy social distance. The risk of transmitting the virus usually occurs when workers are closer together (<1,5m) for longer periods (>15 min) – such as in packhouses and wool sheds. This applies especially to intensive farming enterprises and where large numbers of workers are being transported.”

Awareness is essential

Producers must ensure that all workers are duly informed of the risks associated with COVID-19, how it is transmitted and how to practice personal hygiene, says Dr Louw. “Workers must wear masks and must be scanned daily to detect symptoms. Those with symptoms must be isolated and tested – as in any other industry.”

It is essential for producers, as well as their employees, to undergo training. They must also share the necessary information with workers and explain how the COVID-19 virus can harm their health. Training initiatives are therefore vital.

Jahni de Villiers, head of labour and development at Agri SA, agrees that training and awareness should be top of the agenda. Agri SA started empowering producers in March by making posters featuring hygiene measures available in nine different languages. “The most important thing is for people to stay home when they are sick, keep their distance, wear masks and practice good hygiene,” she explains.

Jahni says implementing environmental controls, such as providing adequate ventilation, using ultraviolet light for disinfection, making handwashing facilities available and other steps required in labs and factories, is an expense few have budgeted for. “The positive aspect of this is that these additional measures not only protect against COVID-19, but also against all winter germs. Fewer sick people mean increased production and reduced risk.”

Advantages of technology

For the agricultural industry, lockdown also meant a move towards using digital platforms, which has had a positive impact on both industry and labour.

Jahni says that Agri SA’s leadership seized the opportunity to host online meetings during lockdown. “Even the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) now has an online platform. The National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) is fully online and I am excited to see what the future holds. I think communication in terms of labour relations has also improved.”

Francois Rossouw, CEO of Saai, says they were very dependent on information during lockdown. “There were days when regulations and directives were released three times a day and it was simply impossible to keep up. When the lockdown regulations were announced, Saai introduced a digital travel permit that producers could complete on their phones and receive immediate feedback.

“We also issued the permit using a QR code format, which is very handy. The permit is still in use and there are currently some 18 000 producers and agricultural-related service providers using it.” – Claudi Nortje, Stockfarm

For more information, send an email to Christo Bester at christo@lwo.co.za, Dr André Louw at adurlouw@mweb.co.za, Jahni de Villiers at jahni@agrisa.co.za, or Francois Rossouw at francois@saai.org.