Agriculture, like manufacturing and construction, is one of several industries allowed to resume full-scale operations under Phase I of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reopening plan for upstate New York.
While gearing up, officials urge business owners, who are ultimately responsible for employees and customers, to remain vigilant in the fight against coronavirus by continuing to follow strict health and safety procedures.
Cornell University and state Department of Agriculture & Markets leaders discussed such issues in a recent webinar, “Best Management Practices for COVID-19 Safety in Greenhouses and Nurseries.”
“We are primed for an outbreak among the agricultural workforce,” said Richard Stup, Cornell ag worker specialist. “New York state is starting to open back up. It’s the time of year when people want to get outside. We need to step up to prevent relaxation of safety efforts. We should be doing everything possible to protect people.
“It’s too important to let slide,” he said. “We need to fight this to the end.”
Quoting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s World War II battle cry, Stup said, “Never give in. Never, never, never.”
Quite simply, reopening does not signal a return to business as usual. Owners must “be more assertive than ever” as safety leaders, Step said.
Training and retraining is especially important as the ag workforce expands in summer.
“Communication is always important — right now it’s critical,” said Elizabeth Bihn, Cornell Food Science, director of Produce Safety Alliance. “Get good science in a manner people understand. Share information. Talk about why it’s important at work and in the community. People need to be protected and reducing risk 24/7.”
Mary Jo Dudley, Cornell Farmworker Program director, told about a system for text messaging 2,500 farm workers with videos in Spanish and other indigenous languages about COVID-19 transmission and protective steps.
For workers and customers alike, greenhouses and nurseries — like many businesses — will do things differently than before.
“You really need to consider flow,” Bihn said. “How do people move around? Things may move slower. That’s OK.”
In addition, owners must remain vigilant about social distancing and sanitation, provide safety measures such as plexiglass shields at check-out counters, and give employees the tools needed to prevent disease such as face coverings, cleaning solutions, brushes, buckets and mops.
“Assign cleaning details,” Stup said. “Use your leadership authority and assign important tasks to individuals as part of their work. Assign cleaning in farm-provided housing, also. And model the behaviors you want from followers. Your actions speak louder than your words to model grit, determination and most of all, perseverance.”
Jon Greenberg, state agriculture department Division of Food Safety & Inspection director, said greenhouse benches and floors should be cleaned as soon as they’re finished being used and as often as possible, the same as farm work areas.
As they reopen, every business must develop and adopt a formal New York Forward Plan to protect workers and consumers, make the workplace safer, and implement processes that lower the risk of infection at businesses.
This includes three main factors, which are:
• Protections for employees and customers including possible adjustments to workplace hours, shifting design to reduce density in the workplace, and restricting non-essential travel for employees.
• Changes to the physical workspace such as requiring all employees and customers to wear masks if in frequent close contact with others.
• Implementing processes that meet changing public health obligations. This could include screening individuals when they enter the workplace or reporting confirmed positives to customers.
A New York Forward safety plan template can be found online at bit.ly/NYSafety
“You need to fill this out,” Stup said. “Write your plan, stick to your plan and document your actions. You need to document specific decisions you make.”