Agriculture industry facing challenges under COVID prevention guidance

Photo by Rick von Geldern/Winters Express

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New guidance established in November around COVID prevention at work has caused unease for some in the local agricultural industry.

The New Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) from the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board were established Nov. 30 for COVID-19 prevention in the workplace. Local farmers have expressed concern that even if they comply with all the ETS requirements, they have no control over what their employees do outside of their workplace.

These new rules require employers to establish a written COVID-19 Prevention Program and implement a series of safety, communication, educational, training, record keeping and reporting standards to provide additional employee health protections.

In late December a coalition of agricultural and business employers filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court challenging the statutory authority of the Board to require employers to implement the ETS. In California every employer already has a legal obligation to provide and maintain a safe and healthy workplace for employees under the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973. As of 1991, a written, effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program was required for every California employer.

Dave Puglia, President & CEO of Western Growers, said the Board imposed unrealistic, unfounded and economically harmful standards in a press release. He continued that while the measures helped reduce transmission in workplaces, the coronavirus has swept through communities large and small in spite of lockdown orders and mask mandates. Puglia said they have no choice but to seek judicial relief.

Local organic grower Terra Firma Farms operates a 200-acre farm growing vegetables, fruits and nuts and employs 45 employees. In their Dec. newsletter they reported they had not experienced any COVID-19 cases, but also surmised that farmworkers have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 when not working.

Mariani Nut Company has continued to provide employee education and guidance.

“We’re way out in front of the standards and have been working in partnership with Yolo County on all things COVID,” said Jeff Simmons, Operations Mgr. for Mariani Nut Company. “We’re focused on keeping our doors open and keeping our employees healthy by employing education, guidance and following the CDC, Yolo and other audit agency’s guidelines.”

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