Learning from workplace outbreaks
Avocados Australia is carefully monitoring instances of COVID-19 in agriculture in Australia, to help the avocado industry be prepared and stay safe. Even if a specific COVID-19 plan or workplace health and safety plan that includes COVID-19 isn’t mandatory for your business, please consider putting such a plan in place, for the continued operation of your business, and the safety of your family, workers and community.
On this page:
- Learnings from Bundaberg, Queensland (2020)
- Learnings from Cedar Meats, Victoria (2020).
Do your planning to keep operating
Yes, we breathed a sigh of relief the June 2020 case was on a strawberry farm, but it could easily have been an avocado orchard.
As background, a man in his 20s travelled from the Melbourne CBD, via an overnight stay in Brisbane with friends and family, to Bundaberg to take up a seasonal worker position in the strawberry industry. He was in transit on 1-2 June, and had worked only one shift at the farm before developing mild symptoms and reporting to the local health services for testing. It is very likely he was infected by a confirmed case in Victoria. At this stage, all of the contacts tested (and re-tested) by Queensland health (more than 200 people) have returned negative results. At the time of writing (updated 25 June 2020), the original case remained the only confirmed case.
Learnings for the avocado industry nationally
In this case, the presence of a Health Management Plan (this is mandatory in Queensland for agricultural businesses utilising seasonal workers) for both the farm and the accommodation centre reportedly expedited Queensland Health’s track and trace activities. This worked so well, we understand the farm was able to resume picking within days.
If you do not have a health plan in place, or your state does not require one, Avocados Australia encourages you to develop a Health Management Plan for your orchard regardless.
Click on your state to find the relevant plan template, or further information. Please note, even if your state does not require a specific COVID-19 plan, you may be required to update your existing workplace health and safety plans for COVID-19. Check with your relevant state agency. You can also find a state-by-state list of COVIDsafe planning requirements in the WHS module of the BPR.
Cedar Meats: early learnings for the Australian avocado industry
Please note, there are timeline discrepancies in the available public documents and media reports. The below includes dates from Cedar Meats, departmental websites and media reports but there are conflicting dates online, and this is an evolving situation.
In late April 2020, a meat worker at Cedar Meats, in Melbourne’s west, Victoria was tested for COVID-19 after being admitted to hospital on an unrelated matter (surgery for an injured thumb) and later developing COVID-19 symptoms. Cedar Meats says it was not informed for several days that the worker had COVID-19; although the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) says this notification did occur, along with notification of a second case around the same time. The public was informed on 2 May but the business was not immediately named (this didn’t last long).
In responding to this outbreak, the company:
- sent all 350 staff for testing by 1 May 2020
- closed down the processing side of the business
- undertook a staged closing with reduced staffing (to complete processing of animals already at the facility)
- will undergo deep cleaning before re-opening on 18 May.
Additional measures were in place
Based on media reports, it appears that prior to the confirmed case, Cedar Meats had a temperature testing regime in place at the plant, was sending sick workers home, increased cleaning protocols, and staggered lunch breaks to provide separation between teams.
By 7 May, there were 62 cases associated with the plant; it appears the initial positive cases all worked in one area of the plant but despite the company’s steps to limit contact, it was not contained to one team/operational area. It’s also important to note that most of the individuals who tested positive early in the response were asymptomatic.
It also appears the Victorian department did not tell the Federal Agriculture Department until 30 April, and various inspectors had been onsite during that time, and visited other meatworks. They’ve tested negative to this point.
From media reports, it appears another Cedar Meats worker had COVID-19 confirmed on 2 April, but that worker had not been at the plant for four weeks, and does not appear to be the source of this cluster. It also appears Cedar Meats may not have been informed about this 2 April case until after the late April cases.
Learnings for avocado orchards and packsheds
Regardless of the actual timeline, this was a meat processing facility in a metropolitan area, and it took up to three days for the facility to be notified that one of their staff had COVID-19 (including testing and contact tracing activities).
- The safety of staff, their families and the community is paramount.
- Orchards/packsheds should have a workforce/health management plan in place for COVID-19, covering both risk reduction measures, and clear steps about what to do in the case of both suspected/potential and confirmed cases.
- Orchards/packsheds should have a staff policy requesting the staff member (unless medically incapable of doing so) inform their employer they have reason to be tested, and when results are expected. Read more from the Fair Work Ombudsman on health and safety in the workplace during COVID-19.
- Orchards/packsheds utilising labour hire providers should ensure open lines of communication with regard to positive test notifications.
- Orchards/packsheds should have in place sufficient records to take immediate reasonable actions to proactively protect their workforce at the point of notification of testing, not results.
- Orchards/packsheds should not assume the state health department has informed relevant non-health federal department and agencies, and proactively notify any inspectors/auditors themselves, if visits are due.
- Given the high number of low-symptom or asymptomatic cases with COVID-19, ensure all staff are sent for testing if a case is confirmed.
- Take all necessary steps to protect employee privacy. You can read more about ensuring privacy is maintained from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner here.
There will be confusion and questions about who knew what, and when, and a lively local rumour mill that will play out in national media if a larger cluster emerges.
- Provide any and all records to relevant authorities and restrict public comment (to the media, on the company social media, in conversations at the supermarket) only to hard facts about dates and that you are implementing your existing workplace management plan to protect your staff, their families and the local community.
- Update your website/social media page with a point of contact for the media. This could be either someone from your company or, if they agree, your peak industry body.
- If possible, provide a written statement/video on your website or social media page. News outlets with less available capacity will rely on this statement for their coverage.
- Again, take all necessary steps to protect employee privacy. You can read more about ensuring privacy is maintained from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner here.
Don’t leave your staff uninformed, or concerned about their health, job security etc. In the case of Cedar Meats, one worker was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald saying he could not get information about his pay, benefits or if he had been closely exposed to a confirmed case. Concerned staff will talk, if not to the media then to their friends and family.
- Ensure your staff members are also provided with a point of contact for their queries, especially if your workplace is completely closed for deep cleaning.
- Provide updates in an appropriate and timely manner. EG, staff meeting (with distancing) in the initial stages, regular emails/texts/phone calls afterward, especially if the site is closed.
You can find links to useful resources (including health management plans, and a checklist of processes to have in place, including confidential reporting policies), in our Staying safe in the orchard/packshed guide. This article is a compilation of resources from various state and national groups, agencies, and departments. Please ensure they meet the WHS and industrial relations requirements of your state.
Date Published: 08/05/2020