Farms require a plan in case workers fall ill

Staff shortages are a real possibility as the number of people infected with the virus continues to rise across the Prairies

What would happen if the primary manager of the farm or ranch fell ill with COVID-19, or if there weren’t enough healthy employees to do the work?

It’s a question every operation should consider in these pandemic times, and once considered, a plan should be made for the worst-case scenario.

Jennifer Wright, senior human resources manager with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, has been providing information through webinars to various livestock sectors about human resource matters. Staff shortages are a real possibility as the number of people infected with the virus continues to rise across the Prairies.

“We’re already hearing that this is happening, people are getting sick or they’re needing to stay home with their family members,” said Wright.

She suggested that farmers co-ordinate with neighbours or others in their industry to make plans should a primary manager fall ill. Making sure support is available if needed can relieve the anxiety many are feeling about the pandemic.

“You really right now need to be thinking what happens if the farmer, the main manager is sick,” she said. “Ideally, you already have an emergency plan or risk management plan.”

Farm operators must ensure employees have access to information about hand washing, distancing and other protocols, and employers should also be aware that employees can refuse to work if they think the environment is unsafe.

Employees have responsibilities to comply with protocols.

“You want to be reminding your employees about their responsibility to notify you if they’re not feeling well,” Wright said. “Make sure that you’re really creating an environment where workers feel comfortable knowing what to do if they do have symptoms.”

If a worker becomes ill, employers are not legally allowed to share medical information with others about the ill person. They can let other employees know that they might be at risk, but no names can be shared, said Wright.

Physical distancing of the recommended two metres is difficult and sometimes impossible for farm workers dealing with regular tasks. However, some measures can be taken to limit contact, such as eliminating group coffee and lunch breaks and organizing staggered breaks instead.

Wright also suggested work teams be established so the same people are always working together. As is the case with many hog and poultry workers, work clothes should remain at work even though protective gear is often provided.

Risks associated with employees picking up needed supplies or accepting on-farm deliveries also need to be considered, said Wright.

“Clearly that can’t be stopped. You need to have feed coming in, you need to have all sorts of supplies coming in, but how you manage that is going to be really important.”

Hand washing is doubly important in those cases and if that is a problem in an on-farm situation, steps should be taken to provide soap and water, sanitizer and/or disinfectant. Portable hand-washing stations, like those common at outdoor events, can also be rented.

Megan Madden, communications manager with the National Cattle Feeders Association, said members have told her that human health and animal care are the main worries at feedlots.

“Primarily, they’re concerned about health and safety, obviously, for families, for employees and also how those protocols will be changing and how to be keeping those people both healthy and safe, while they’re either at work or quarantined or whatever that looks like,” said Madden during a webinar on preparedness.

If too many employees become ill, proper care of livestock is an issue.

“Right now we’re working with a lot of producers on best management practices to be able to triage the jobs on a farm to ensure that animal care is primary and that that’s being managed.”

Charlotte Shipp, industry programs manager with Alberta Pork, also urged producers to make contingency plans now.

“Agriculture of course has been deemed an essential service but with that comes an incredible responsibility to keep our workers safe so that we can continue to operate and continue to get pork to market,” she said.

“We absolutely must start building contingency plans and preparing for staff shortages and other challenges that will arise as this pandemic continues.”

CAHRC has a list of links on its website to government, agencies and other entities that have information about the pandemic and response. Its site also includes advice on emergency agri-workforce issues.

It can be found at

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