By Michelle Danyluk and Ben Chapman
While there is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus is a food-safety concern, it certainly is a worker health concern. It spreads person-to-person through close contact (defined as within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes) or by contact with contaminated surfaces.
Systematically walking through the grove, packinghouse or processing plant and thinking about strategies to address employees, surfaces, distancing and how to handle positive COVID-19 test results is something everyone in the citrus industry should be doing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have recently partnered and published a checklist on things to focus on, address and adjust. This resource has been a helpful starting point for many. The publication, Employee Health and Food Safety Checklist for Human and Animal Food Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic, can be downloaded here.
As much as possible, employ physical distancing by instructing employees to keep at least 6 feet away from each other in the grove, packinghouse and processing plant. Play particular attention to areas where workers naturally congregate, like break areas and restrooms, around handwashing stations and on buses.
When physical distancing is not an option, consider dividing workers into cohorts that only work with members within that cohort for the duration of the pandemic. This involves having designated cohort crews during harvest, packing and processing, the members of which never cross paths with other cohorts during the workday. Staff in the same household should be assigned to the same crew or cohort.
Cohorts reduce the risk of losing your entire workforce, such as may happen if an employee that works at the same time as all of your other employees tests positive for COVID-19.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
It’s important to have a strategy on how to communicate with workers on an ongoing basis. Plan to continuously educate workers on COVID-19 symptoms, how it spreads and how to reduce the spread of the disease.
Instruct workers to stay home if they are sick (coughing, sore throat, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.). 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.
The workforce is an essential cog in keeping the citrus industry going, and systematically doing what we can to keep employees healthy is something we all need to focus on.
Michelle Danyluk is a professor at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety Extension specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
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