COVID-19 and Wholesale Produce Farms

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

COVID-19 will pose additional challenges for produce growers this season. The good news is that there is no evidence of the spread of the virus in food and with produce specifically. However, potential transmission of the virus with employees and contract workers is of great concern.

Protecting Against Transmission in the Labor Force
Labor on produce farms is often complicated. There are family members and year-round employees. There are seasonal employees that may be directly hired by the farm, contracted directly by the grower through labor brokers, or contracted by produce brokers. Housing may be provided on the farm, or more commonly, seasonal labor lives in off-farm locations. There are H2A workers coming from Mexico or other countries just for the season then returning home.

No matter what the labor situation, growers and brokers should educate workers on COVID-19 symptoms, how it spreads, and how to reduce the spread of the disease.

It is very important to instruct workers to stay home if they are sick (coughing, sore throat, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.). Housing may be more important as workers often live together in close quarters where COVID-19 could spread rapidly. Where possible, arrange for housing that allows for distancing. Train employees on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in housing and personal activities.

Some employees may need reassurance that they will not be punished for missing work due to illness, while others may be unwilling to miss a paycheck due to illness. Have a plan and communicate in advance for how you will address these individuals (paid sick leave). Government programs may be of assistance so keep current with available funding for agriculture and small businesses.

Monitoring Employee Health for COVID-19
Businesses should follow CDC and FDA guidance for screening employees who have been exposed to COVID-19. Pre-screen employees for symptoms (fever, dry cough) before starting work. Employees with fever and symptoms should be advised to see a doctor for evaluation. There are heath care screening organizations that serve the migrant farmworker communities on Delmarva.

Keep informed of current COVID-19 testing in your area and if testing becomes more widely available, have workers tested as appropriate.

Enhanced Training, Personal Protection, Hygiene
Enhanced training on personal hygiene and sanitation should be performed. All employees must wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, frequently throughout the day. This includes when they arrive to work, before handling food, after breaks/using the restroom, and after any contamination event.

Train employees so they do not touch eyes, nose and mouth throughout the day. Discourage employees from sharing vehicles. If employees must travel together, they should wear face masks. Discourage employees from sharing phones, tools, utensils, dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding.

Single-use gloves should be provided to all workers handling produce in packing areas and should be changed when contaminated (when hands touch skin or the ground). When gloves may interfere with a worker’s ability to do their assigned task (harvesting, applying stickers, etc.), handwashing or hand sanitizer should occur frequently.

Workers should wear cloth face coverings while working in close proximity with others. Workers should be instructed on how to wear them properly to prevent illness or injury.

Workforce Organization, Distancing
Instruct workers to keep 6 feet away each other. Limit one employee per vehicle at a time and instruct drivers to disinfect frequently touched surfaces within the vehicle before their shift ends.

When physical distancing is not an option, consider dividing workers into teams that only work with members within that team for the duration of the outbreak. For example, divide your packing crew into two groups that only show up for their groups designated shift. Have the first shift clean and sanitize their works areas and equipment at the end of their shift, and give a buffer of 15 to 30 minutes between the end of the first shift and beginning of the next shift to ensure employees are not in contact with each other during shift changes.

Operations may want to consider having designated harvest and packing crews, the members of which never cross paths during the workday. Employees in the same household should be assigned to the same crew. Working in designated crews reduces the risk of losing your entire workforce.

In some packing areas, plexiglass barriers may also be used to separate workers.

Cleaning and Disinfecting
Cleaning and disinfecting are two separate steps and should be done in order. Cleaning removes dirt and soil and often requires the use of a soap/detergent and water. Disinfecting uses a chemical to inactivate virus on the surface.

Shared tools should be cleaned and disinfected between uses by a different employee. Clean harvest baskets, bags, aprons, knives, etc. after each use. Apply a disinfectant to nonporous produce contact surfaces. Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, including door handles, steering wheels, keyboards, touch screens, etc. throughout the day.

CDC is recommending use of disinfectants on the EPA list found at:

Cloths, uniforms, and other laundry used in produce handling should be washed in hot water.

This article was adapted from the fact sheet “HANDLING COVID-19 – PRODUCE FARMS AND PACKINGHOUSES” from NCState and University of Georgia Extension.