Prevention, Control and Outbreak Support Strategy for COVID-19 in Ontario's Farm Workers

Overview

1. Before Getting on the Farm

2. On the Farm

3. Housing

Overview

Prevention and containment efforts are key to controlling the spread of COVID-19. Industry and government partners in health, agriculture, labour and emergency management have collaborated on efforts to prevent and control COVID-19 on farms, as well as respond rapidly to individual situations as they arise.

However, there have been COVID-19 positive cases and outbreaks on farms in some areas in Ontario and continued vigilance is needed. As a part of the outbreak management response, a number of targeted strategies have been put in place to mitigate and manage arising situations, such as:

  • "Working with farm operators to stop the spread of COVID-19 on farms" toolkit which is a "one stop shop" for farmers on guidance, resources and information related to prevention, control, testing and outbreak management supports;
  • $26.6M in federal and provincial funding to support on-farm health and safety measures;
  • Mental Health for Farmers - First Aid Kit;
  • $25.5M in funding for the Agri-food Prevention and Control Innovation Program;
  • Prevention, awareness, investigation and enforcement measures and interventions by the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD);
  • Local health unit oversight and inspection, including section 22 orders (e.g. regarding movement of workers between farm operations);
  • Proactive testing for farm workers;
  • Incident Management Structure (IMS) led by the Deputy Minister, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) with ministry partners;
  • Ministry of Health (MOH)-led Ontario Outbreak Investigation Coordinating Committee;
  • Oversight and inspection by Temporary Foreign Worker Program countries' consular/liaison offices;
  • Promoting the use of legitimate temporary help agencies (Temporary Help Agencies); and
  • Federal Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) programming, funding and inspections.

While we have been responding to the urgent need to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognized the importance of establishing a strategic and holistic approach for disease response province-wide to address immediate pressures and prepare for next season. Developed by the Minister of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs' Sector Leadership Group on COVID-19, the strategy outlined in this document offers a path for government and industry to follow to collaboratively address immediate and longer-term pressures facing the agri-food sector in the prevention and containment of COVID-19 on farm settings across Ontario.

High level Objectives

  • Prevent and contain COVID-19 outbreaks in agri-food workplaces;
  • Protect the health and wellness of agri-food workers while respecting their rights and freedoms;
  • Maintain sustainability and viability of agri-food sector.

Guiding Principles

  • Protecting the health and wellness of agri-food workers while respecting their rights and freedoms is of utmost importance.
  • Where possible, preventing COVID-19 from entering the workforce and minimizing opportunities for spread are the top priority, achieved through the consistent use of health and safety best practices and public health measures. Rapid identification of cases is also important.
  • When applying directives or guidance, it is important for government to engage industry to validate that the solution does indeed lead to improved health and safety for workers, and to identify potential unintended consequences.
  • Measurement and targets are key to showing progress over time, informing adjustments during implementation, and detecting new issues. Consensus on metrics is important to ensure accurate tracking and reporting, and partners will work together to identify two to three core metrics for measuring successful implementation of the strategy.

Roles and Responsibilities

Roles and responsibilities for the recommended action items in the strategy will be implemented by the following partners:

  • Government and agencies: OMAFRA, MLTSD, MOH, Solicitor General, and other government agencies and partners including Public Health Ontario, Ontario and local public health units, who play a key role with coordinating the prevention and control of the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario, including within the agri-food sector.
  • Industry associations: representing key subsectors of the agri-food sector who provide leadership, support and communication for the broad agri-food sector around infection, prevention and control measures on-farm with their members.
  • Farm employers/ Farmers: individual business owners who operate farming/agricultural businesses in Ontario and employ farm workers have a key role in implementing infection, prevention and control measures on-farm, as well as providing leadership and communication to workers on recommended public health measures.
  • Workers have a role in ensuring they contribute to implementing public health recommendations on their farms, adhere to occupational health and safety rules while working, report illness, seek medical care, and follow public health best practices and recommendations on and off-farm.

Three broad categories related to prevention and containment on-farm form the pillars of the strategy:

1. Before Getting on the Farm

Context

The experience with COVID-19 on farms to-date strongly suggests that outbreaks can be prevented, minimized and contained by adopting a combination of strategies including screening and health assessments, and following biosecurity procedures for all staff who work on the farm, including Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs), labourers sourced from Temporary Help Agencies, other staff, and visitors. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, anecdotal accounts from local public health indicated that TFWs did not bring the virus to Ontario but rather contracted it after they arrived, highlighting the high-risk transmission of the virus on the farm.

At the same time, the initial two-week quarantine period following the arrival of TFWs in Ontario is an opportunity to prevent introduction of COVID-19 into farms via newly arrived TFW who could be incubating or infectious. During this time, it is important for these workers to be made aware of resources available to them, and their roles, rights and responsibilities regarding COVID-19 safety, as well as those of their employers and supervisors.

Immediate Pressures

Implementing Best Practices
  • Some farms quickly implemented screening for all workers and visitors prior to entry on to the farm as a strategy to prevent introduction of the virus, however more widespread adoption of screening practices is required. Note that screening activities may not detect asymptomatic cases and those people with COVID-19 but not showing symptoms can therefore be a source for introducing the virus on-farm.
  • Testing is an important diagnostic tool to help detect cases. Strategies to promote early reporting of symptoms are key to ensuring testing is undertaken in alignment with public health policies. It is critical that workers understand under what circumstances testing is recommended, and if they test positive, know to not come to work, how to self-isolate effectively, and that there are available supports including medical care, financial and employment supports. Easy access to testing and medical care should be ensured.
  • Many farmers have implemented strong biosecurity measures on-farm such as signage, traceability of movement by workers on and between farms, enhanced attention to cleaning and sanitation of frequently touched surfaces and shared items, living spaces and bathrooms, hand hygiene (hand washing or use of hand sanitizer) and use of personal protective equipment (PPE), etc. It is critically important that all farmers consistently implement such measures.
  • Harvest time usually brings a shifting of workers between different farm operations and increases the potential for additional contacts and spread of COVID-19 on farms. To prevent further disease-spread while supporting labour needs, movements on and between farm operations and businesses should be controlled/limited/documented and coordinated.
Temporary Help Agencies
  • The use of Temporary Help Agencies has been identified as a key risk for bringing the virus on-farm as temporary agency staff intermingle with workers who live on the farm property, move between different farms and within the community, and potentially spread the virus.
  • The growing awareness of the existence of illegitimate Temporary Help Agencies in Ontario (not just in the agri-food sector), brings a need to empower farm employers with tools to fully vet those agencies that supply temporary labour.

Recommended actions to address immediate pressures:

  1. All farmers to have a COVID-19 prevention and control plan in place. The hierarchy of controls for breaking the chain of COVID-19 transmission can help employers identify the right combination for their workplaces, recognizing that the focus will be on (from most to least effective) engineering controls, administrative controls, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE). More information can be found at this web site.
  2. Government to provide active training (e.g. webinar) for farmers on how to conduct screening, and convey knowledge about:
    1. appropriate barriers or personal protective equipment (medical mask and face shield) and physical distancing for the screener if screening is done in person; and
    2. procedures to follow in case a worker screens positive (i.e., screening indicates that the worker needs further assessment for COVID-19 and possibly medical care).
  3. Farmers to commit to daily active screening of all farm workers and other visitors to the farm (including employees and workers sourced via Temporary Help Agencies) prior to entry onto a farm. This involves asking them specific questions about COVID-19 symptoms, travel history outside of Canada during the previous 14 days, and potential exposure to COVID-19-positive individuals. Based on available information, best practices for daily health screening include:
    1. Rapidly identifying possible cases of COVID-19 among workers in order to support obtaining appropriate medical assessments and to assist in preventing transmission on the farm.
    2. Providing information resources for workers, in the appropriate language, about the screening process and health supports available if they develop symptoms.
    3. Implementing record retention practices to support contact tracing while protecting sensitive personal information and disposing of records properly.
  4. Farmers to actively inform all workers of the availability of testing, how to access testing, and enable testing for those workers who want to be tested.
  5. Farmers, in areas where public health has identified a heightened public health risk, will promote testing recommendations as directed by the local health unit.
  6. For farmers who contract with Temporary Help Agencies for their workers:
    1. ask for confirmation that the Temporary Help Agency is in compliance with relevant legal requirements as an employer, such as proof of registration with Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB);
    2. ask the Temporary Help Agency what steps have been taken to ensure risk of COVID transmission has been mitigated through isolation protocols and/or testing and that workers have been informed about COVID prevention and control measures.
  7. Industry to continue to raise awareness among farm operators about the risks of using illegitimate Temporary Help Agencies and other agents who do not follow best practices or comply with applicable laws.
  8. Government and farmers to promote increased access to more comprehensive health and wellness support services for workers (e.g. health assessments by health care providers, mental health support, translation services at health care settings).
  9. Government and industry to ensure that TFWs are provided a fulsome package of information on prevention and control of COVID-19 on their arrival to Ontario so they have access to the same information as domestic agricultural workers. This would be a complete, culturally appropriate resource package that is clear and easy to understand and explains the Canadian/Ontario COVID-19 context for foreign workers who may be unfamiliar with it. This should be available in multiple formats, including hard copy, electronically, and could even be provided via active learning opportunities through videos and/or webinars (for small groups/individuals) in appropriate languages.

Longer-Term Pressures

2021 Season Process for Temporary Foreign Workers
  • For contracting workers through the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TWFP), farmers work through an advance application process to secure their workforce for upcoming production and harvest seasons. For next year's cycle of agricultural labour activity, consider the following recommendations:

Recommended actions to address longer-term pressures:

  1. Industry and government to assess and adopt an improved process in Ontario for the 2021 season, whereby incoming workers are screened for COVID-19, provided with health checks and COVID-19-related information, including information on public health best practices, and quarantined.
  2. Government to consider mechanisms to ensure that Temporary Help Agencies providing workers to farms meet a minimum standard of conduct. This could include licensing Temporary Help Agencies and/or adopting models in use in other jurisdictions for licensing temporary agencies to restrict use of illegitimate agencies.

2: On the Farm

Context

Health advice on the prevention and control of COVID-19 continues to emphasize the importance of using multiple strategies and controls, including physical barriers and physical distancing whenever possible, practices to limit the number of contacts such as cohorting, frequent cleaning of high touch surfaces, provision of hand-hygiene stations, and use of PPE or non-medical masks. While there are some types of work on-farm that may not be as conducive to such measures, a more concerted approach is needed to best protect all workers on-farm. At a minimum and except if completely alone, non-medical masks should be worn when indoors on the farm, in the community and shared spaces in accordance with provincial and local public health guidance, or while in transit and when within 2 metres (6 feet) of others while outdoors. Physical distancing of 2 metres (6 feet) should be maintained from others as much as possible. Hand hygiene should be performed frequently and after touching other people or surfaces or items touched by others.

There currently exists a tremendous volume of best practice and guidance materials from multiple sources (federal and provincial agencies/ministries, local public health, etc.) which are challenging to compare and integrate. Work must continue on streamlining and consolidating resources and focusing awareness and training efforts on highest impact best practices.

Immediate Pressures

Workplace Health and Safety
  • Physical distancing can be difficult to implement in some farm settings due to close proximity and production flow, however its implementation is extremely important whenever possible.
  • Regular, enhanced cleaning and sanitation measures for frequently touched items, shared items, shared living spaces, eating spaces and bathrooms are critical measures that, together with hand hygiene, PPE, or non-medical mask use and other practices, work to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19. While many operations are already implementing these measures, full adoption by all farms is important.
  • Use of PPE can help to prevent spread of COVID-19. While the majority of farmers are ensuring workers wear appropriate PPE, it is critical that all farms and workers have strict requirements for PPE use, or use of non-medical masks as appropriate, when other controls have been unable to effectively lower the risk. See Context of Section 2.
  • Driving adoption of best practices at the individual farm level can be a challenge, which is often best achieved with incentives that can act as a positive force for change. The WSIB's Health and Safety Excellence Program provides financial incentives for employers implementing actions to improve workplace safety, including actions that reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.
Cohorts
  • It can be difficult for some farmers to group workers into small cohorts due to nature of production and the variety of labour needs and farm infrastructure, however, this is a recommended measure to minimize the risks of both virus transmission and operational impacts.
  • Cohorts are an important tool to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19. The smaller the cohort, the more likely any transmission will be limited. The impact of the use of cohorting is strengthened in combination with the use of PPE or non-medical masks, and physical distancing and other measures.
  • Planning should occur for outbreak response to determine how people infected with COVID-19 and those exposed to the virus will be managed, including the use of onsite and offsite isolation spaces, in consultation with and at the direction of the local public health unit.
Movement of workers
  • Due to a fluid workforce and the movement of workers around and between different farm businesses (recognizing that a farm business can have multiple locations), limiting workers to a particular location and protecting the health of workers while in transit is a challenge for farmers. However, it is recognized that the more movement, the more risk that worker groups will intermingle, potentially resulting in transmission of COVID-19.
  • Arranging for minimal movement of workers while on the job limits the risk of COVID-19 transmission and documentation of any movement, in particular when it involves interactions with other persons, facilitates strong contact tracing practices for public health purposes if needed.
  • For worker movement during non-work-related activities/personal time, workers may not be aware of the risks for COVID-19 transmission when off-farm and corresponding best practices to follow to minimize virus spread without access to or provision of public health resource packages.
Information Sharing
  • There is an urgent need for improved information sharing between industry and government agencies/ministries to enable evidence-based, coordinated activities that increase adoption of public health best practices across the agri-food system, especially as information continues to evolve.

Recommended actions to address immediate pressures where not already in effect:

Workplace Health and Safety

  1. Farmers to implement physical distancing and adopt barriers to ensure protection of workers indoors, such as plexiglass or mobile barriers, where these measures have not been implemented already. If barriers are not possible and workers will be in the same indoor space or within 2 metres/6 feet outdoors, non-medical mask should be worn as directed by the local health unit and, in some instances, PPE (medical masks, face shields) may be indicated along with proper hand hygiene. These measures should be documented in the prevention and control strategy described in Section 1.
  2. Farmers to design workplace and operating protocols and procedures to support and enable workers in implementing COVID-19 prevention best practices, including easy access to well-stocked hand washing facilities (pump soap and paper towels) and/or alcohol-based sanitizers.
  3. Farmers to ensure full cleaning and sanitizing of workplaces on a regular and continuous cycle in alignment with health guidelines, including frequent cleaning and sanitation of shared tools, equipment and other high-touch surfaces, particularly between users.
  4. Farmers to provide practical instruction and training to workers, contractors and volunteers on proper use of PPE, non-medical masks and other health and safety protections. Workers need to be trained in the proper techniques to put on and take off PPE, use, storage, cleaning, maintenance and limitations of the protective equipment they wear. Such training could take the form of demonstrations in appropriate languages and practice sessions for workers to put on and take off equipment properly, including proper hand hygiene.
  5. Industry to make farmers aware of services provided by Workplace Safety and Protection Services (WSPS) outlined in the "Working with farm operators to stop the spread of COVID-19 on farms" toolkit where needed, to identify areas of risk and how to make improvements.
  6. Industry to make farmers aware of the availability of supplies such as medical masks, gloves, face shields, alcohol-based hand sanitizer and counter guards to protect workplaces and workers.
  7. Industry to promote the message that it is the shared responsibility of everyone to work together to protect each other in any workplace or social setting. Effort needs to be made to convey this in all of the languages spoken by workers. Industry and farmers to establish a workplace culture that empowers workers to actively implement best practices, identify barriers and determine solutions.
  8. Government and industry to develop culturally-specific materials for the workforce that address testing stigmas, ensure easy access to testing (i.e., onsite or with easily accessible transportation), provide assurances that their health care needs will be met without costs, and provide information on existing financial and employment supports. Consider employing cultural influencers to deliver this message directly to the workforce.
  9. Government and industry to ensure the public health guidance given to all Ontarians on social interactions with regard to COVID-19 prevention recommendations is translated and provided to all farm workers. This will include an explanation of what phase of reopening a region is in and what that means, and guidance for workers who live in congregate living arrangements. This guidance needs to be available in multiple languages, and communicated at regular intervals to keep awareness active.
  10. Workers to review provided resources and ask questions and make best efforts to understand COVID-19-related risks, implement public health best practices, report illnesses, seek medical care and report concerns.
Cohorts
  1. Farmers to establish cohorts (as small as possible and following local health guidelines) of workers on-farm. Best practices to use with cohorts of workers include:
    • assign workers to the same cohort in the bunkhouse and workplace to limit exposure of workers to those within the cohort;
    • establish cohorts by using risk profiles, considering factors such as housing location and off-work interactions. Try to group cohorts by worker preference if possible; and
    • Consider what additional measures can be taken to reduce risk if small cohort groups are not possible.
Movement of Workers
  1. Where possible, farmers to limit workers to work at one farm operation only, as this will help in mitigating risk of spread within and between different farm locations. Minimizing the movement between different sites of the same farm operation should also be carefully considered when this movement involves interactions with other persons. All movement of workers or management between sites within a business should be documented.
  2. When a worker travels off-farm, farmers should provide individual transportation to the extent feasible. Encourage workers to avoid carpooling if possible and, if not, encourage carpooling with the same cohort. Limit the number of people per vehicle to maintain physical distancing. Non-medical masks should be worn at all times when in transit (except if in a vehicle alone) and windows should be rolled down to promote ventilation where feasible.
  3. If cohorts have been established, each car/bus/shuttle should be limited to cohort members only.
  4. Farmers and workers to ensure that commonly touched surfaces in the vehicle are cleaned and sanitized after each trip (e.g., door handles, seatbelt buckles).
  5. Farmers to minimize movement of workers between farm businesses in their region and in accordance with local health unit requirements where applicable.
    • This is not intended to limit legally permissible one-time transfers of workers, like those permitted under federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), however prevention and control measures for one-time transfers must also be in place.
  6. Farmers to commit to documenting daily attendance of all workers and visitors, including documenting the worker's cohort, to support contact tracing practices (can be performed at the time of screening).
Information Sharing
  1. Government and industry to use data/information available (e.g., from science, lessons learned from MLTSD inspections and local health investigations, and from other jurisdictions) to identify highest-impact practices and measures that would most effectively prevent or reduce COVID-19 transmission to farm workers, and to prioritize resources, training and awareness towards these practices and measures.

Longer-Term Pressures

Workplace design, work flows and operational practices in agricultural settings that were established prior to the pandemic may not be conducive to maintaining physical distancing or other important prevention and control practices.

Recommended actions to address longer-term pressures:

  • Industry and farmers to consider how to redesign workplaces and how their work is done, to enable physical distancing, appropriate barriers, frequent cleaning, etc.

3: Housing

Context

In settings where congregate living is common, we have seen a higher risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. Similar risks exist in the agri-food sector, where congregate living is a common arrangement for living quarters for on-farm staff, many of whom participate in the federal TFWP.

Accommodation structures for workers vary from farm to farm across Ontario, with bunkhouses being a typical style of housing. Bunkhouses, modular units, and other housing arrangements for agricultural workers may not be designed to readily accommodate physical distancing at all times in order to control the spread of an infectious disease like COVID-19 under pandemic conditions. Decreasing the numbers of workers sharing living arrangements as much as possible is an important strategy for preventing transmission of COVID-19.

The federal government has also announced it will develop mandatory requirements under the TFWP to improve employer-provided worker accommodations, in consultation with provinces, territories, employers, workers and foreign partner countries.

Immediate Pressures

  • There is a lack of detailed intelligence on the range of current living arrangements of agricultural worker dwellings, both on and off farm, to understand the logistical and structural changes required to prevent transmission. A clear understanding of typical living arrangements would facilitate an assessment of opportunities for improvement and risk mitigation regarding congregate living arrangements on farms.
  • While there is a standardized national inspection checklist for SAWP and TFWP housing, this checklist was developed prior to COVID-19. Short term risk mitigation practices should be established and rolled out before the 2021 season. It is essential to have clear communications with farmers about how to adapt accommodations for COVID-19, as acquiring additional spaces for workers is difficult when farmers have also suffered financial losses as a result of the pandemic.
  • For the federal development of TFWP mandatory requirements for employer-provided worker accommodations, it will be important for Ontario to ensure that the perspective of its agri-food TFWP users be heard by the federal government in its multi-party consultations.

Recommended actions to address immediate pressures:

  1. Farmers and workers to ensure regular and appropriate cleaning and disinfection of living spaces, eating spaces and washroom, and the provision of appropriate supplies.
  2. Industry and government to establish a working group to focus on immediate housing pressures described below:
    1. document data on current living arrangements of agricultural worker dwellings, both on and off farm, and what gaps exist in suitability of housing to meeting COVID-19 housing configuration guidance;
    2. develop and share an available directory of companies able to build or lease cost-effective modular units and mobile walls/partial walls for temporary solutions;
    3. Government to offer guidance on housing configurations specific to the agriculture sector to inform how farmers reconfigure residential layout and sleeping arrangements to help to maintain physical distancing of 2 meters, repurposing other rooms as additional living space, using additional buildings or off site housing arrangements; and
    4. provide input into Ontario's feedback that will be shared with the federal government as part of consultations to develop mandatory requirements for TFWP employer-provided worker accommodations.
  3. Government to collaborate on a streamlined approach to inspections of agriculture worker dwellings (e.g., ESDC, public health units) to ensure that a COVID-19 prevention and mitigation lens has been applied to address any gaps and that multiple, duplicative inspections are avoided.

Longer-Term Pressures

Government also needs help from the agricultural sector to identify the needs for 2021 (e.g. enhancements that are needed, standards, short term housing until enhancements are made, etc.).

There is a need to understand worker dwelling standards in other jurisdictions and sectors. Current COVID-19 related housing requirements, inspections and housing expectations are not consistent across the province.

The development of more workable standards for housing set-up will come as information becomes more available regarding what is effective at breaking the chain of spread.

Recommended actions to address longer-term pressures:

  1. Building on the housing working group work noted above, Government to work with industry to conduct a thorough review of how spread is occurring on a farm and within worker housing to identify high impact changes that maximize benefits to workers' health and reduce risk of COVID-19 exposure. Recommended 'high impact' changes include review by a government-provided epidemiologist to ensure a science-based approach to the recommendations.
    • Government to ensure this information is provided to the federal government to inform its TFWP housing review and strategy development.
  2. Industry to engage collaboratively with the provincial and federal governments in any TFWP review, particularly as it pertains to worker housing.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca