Co-operation with local health units and vigilance with on-site safety measures are critical to prevent further spread of the virus among workers on farms
By Jackie Clark
Despite guidelines put in place by Health Canada and local public health units, and efforts made by farmers and business owners, many migrant workers across the province of Ontario have contracted COVID-19.
18 per cent of the cases reported in Windsor-Essex County have been farm workers, including one man who passed away in hospital, according to a June 1 report from the health unit. Pioneer Flower Farms in St. Catharines has reported an outbreak, with at least 20 employees testing positive for the virus, according to a May 31 release from the company. 164 employees tested positive at Scotlynn Group in Vittoria, according to a June 4 update from Haldimand and Norfolk Health and Social Services.
“We will continue to follow the Ministry of Health’s lead as we navigate through this together,” said the Pioneer Flower Farms statement. “Many preventive measures had been put into place prior to the outbreak, and further methods have been put into place in the last week to limit the spread. Although the numbers of transmission are high, we are relieved that most results have come back negative, which assures our measures we have put into action are working.”
Scotlynn Group also issued a statement, assuring that “our migrant workers that are now self-isolating will continue to receive their entire compensation. … Their health, care and safety will be managed and monitored by the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit and Norfolk General Hospital as required.”
The company will also be conducting weekly random COVID-19 testing to monitor employees at all of their housing units, the letter posted to Facebook on June 2 stated.
It is essential for agricultural employers to continue to follow the guidance of the government and local health units to prevent further spread of COVID-19 among workers, Jennifer Wright, senior HR adviser and stakeholder engagement specialist for the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), told Farms.com.
This includes staying vigilant with personal hygiene, practicing physical distancing whenever possible, and providing employees with appropriate personal protective equipment when distancing is not possible.
“Each province and some regions have specific information on what is required,” Wright said. “In general, all employers need to do what is outlined on the Ontario government site.”
If an employee contracts COVID-19, there are several actions required by the employer. They should advise the employee to self-isolate (and in the case of temporary foreign workers, provide them the ability to do so), track contact of the sick employee to understand who else may be at risk, and follow up on any Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims with the Ministry of Labour.
“If you suspect or have a confirmed case, you should contact your local public health authority first and proceed with their advice and requirements. There are also provincial protocols that will need to be followed,” she explained.
Local health units may require more workers to self-isolate and monitor, or shut down the job site for disinfection, she added. Employers should ensure the process and policies are well-understood by all workers.
“Employers can make sure they are following all the regulations and protocols to ensure their employees are as safe as possible,” Wright said. “They can also ensure they create an environment where employees feel comfortable enough to raise any concerns or to remove themselves from the workplace and notify you if they have symptoms. This is not a time for employees to ‘tough it out’ or come to work with ‘just a cough.’ They need to know they are supported to be honest and to stay home without any issue.”
Though health and safety of workers is paramount, farmers are also concerned about the ability to meet their labour and production needs, in the event an outbreak incapacitates their workforce.
“First and foremost, take all the steps to try to avoid such an outbreak from occurring,” said Wright. “In the event there is an outbreak, follow the advice of public health authorities. Work with them on business/operation continuity should an outbreak occur.”
Scotlynn Group, for example, offered an increased pay opportunity for community members able to help with harvest. For now, the harvest has been delayed, however they “are encouraged by the outpouring of support,” according to the company’s June 2 statement.