By Michelle Danyluk and Ben Chapman
Citrus packers have some unique challenges when it comes to COVID-19 management, including working in an indoor environment. It is becoming increasingly clear from recent reports of clusters of COVID-19 illnesses that being indoors and around people for prolonged periods of time are risk factors for transmission. Air flow, the limitations of physical distancing because of a pack line, and the vast number of high-touch surfaces make protecting staff health difficult — but certainly not impossible.
Managing an indoor packinghouse means that disinfection of high-touch surfaces, beyond the routine cleaning and sanitizing that occurs for food-safety reasons, is important. Disinfecting routines also need to include administrative offices and break areas that are not generally included in day-to-day cleaning. 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 viruses on surfaces.
Citrus packers may want to consider having designated crews within the packing shed that never cross paths during the workday. Staff in the same household should be assigned to the same crew or cohort. Cohorting reduces the risk of losing your entire workforce, which may happen if an employee that works at the same time as all of your other employees tests positive for COVID-19.
Divide your packing crew into two groups that only show up for their group’s designated shift. Have the first shift clean and sanitize their work areas and equipment at the end of their shift. Give a buffer of 15 to 30 minutes between the end of the first shift and the beginning of the next shift to ensure employees are not in contact with each other during shift changes.
Among the challenges the citrus industry will have in the upcoming months is staying vigilant with hygiene. Employees should be washing their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer of at least 60 percent. This should occur frequently throughout the day, especially after touching surfaces that others have touched or breathed on. Having the correct tools, training on when and how to use them, and reminding staff of the importance of hygiene can help protect public health and the citrus industry.
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.