Managing the risk of COVID-19 exposure: Agriculture industry

Preventing and controlling employee exposure to COVID-19 in the agriculture industry.

Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Minister for Health's Pandemic Orders and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest Victorian Pandemic Orders for applicability.

Restrictions apply across Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations
  • be subject to COVID-19 vaccination requirements

It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan. COVIDSafe plans should be reviewed and updated regularly.

COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with changes for your industry.

How are my occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations impacted by the restrictions?

There is no change to your obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) as a result of the Pandemic Orders issued by the Victorian Minister for Health.

Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work. However, having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with the Victorian Pandemic Orders does not necessarily mean you have complied with all of your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any Pandemic Orders that apply to how your business must operate, and ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

Transmission of COVID-19

Researchers are still learning about COVID-19, its long-term effects and emerging variants.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that can result in mild to very severe illness and death.

The main way COVID-19 spreads is when a person with COVID-19 exhales droplets and/or aerosol particles containing the virus. This can happen when they breathe out, cough, sneeze, speak, shout or sing.

Exhaled droplets range in size. Large droplets settle out of the air faster than they evaporate. Small droplets remain suspended in the air for longer periods. Very fine droplets may contain the virus, and can stay suspended in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours. Small droplets and particles are often referred to as ‘aerosols’.

Transmission of COVID-19 can occur in a number of ways, and possibly in combination.

1. Airborne transmission

This occurs when a person inhales aerosols that may contain viral particles that are infectious.

While the risk of transmission is highest when close to an infectious person, air currents can disperse small droplets and particles over long distances. These may be inhaled by people who have not had face-to-face contact or been in the same space with the infectious person. Airborne transmission is more likely to occur in indoor or enclosed settings that are poorly ventilated, crowded, or both. In these kinds of settings, the virus may remain suspended in the air for longer and increase the risk of spread as people tend to spend longer periods in indoor settings.

2. Droplet transmission

Transmission occurs where exhaled droplets from a person with COVID-19 come into contact with another person's mucosal surfaces (nose, mouth or eyes). The risk of transmission is highest when close to the source, where the concentration of these droplets is greatest.

3. Contaminated surfaces transmission

People may also become infected by touching surfaces that have been contaminated by the virus, and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth without cleaning their hands.

COVID-19 and workers in the agriculture industry

Seasonal, contract and casual employees are an essential part of many workplaces within the agriculture industry. These employees may be particularly vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19 due to:

  • working, living and travelling in close proximity to other people
  • seasonal work patterns which can result in frequent moving between places of work and living, and increased risk of spreading the virus
  • the transient nature of the work may result in employees not being familiar with:
    • workplace policies and procedures
    • emergency procedures
    • training specific to COVID-19
    • infection control policies
    • hand hygiene
    • what to do when they are feeling unwell
    • how to raise concerns

Under the OHS Act employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees, including independent contractors. This includes preventing risks to health, including psychological health, and safety associated with potential exposure to COVID-19.

Employees have a duty to take reasonable care of their own and others health and safety in the workplace and cooperate with their employers about any action they take to comply with the OHS Act or Regulations.

Identifying risks in the agriculture industry

Employers must identify hazards and, if necessary, assess the level of risk to the health of employees from exposure to COVID-19 at their workplace.

This must be done in consultation with health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, and employees, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Risks for employees in the agriculture industry include:

  • sharing facilities in the workplace and in group accommodation, such as bathrooms, kitchens and communal break areas
  • shared or group transportation, for example travelling between accommodation and places of work
  • work that requires employees to be in close contact with others
  • sharing tools, plant or equipment

An increased risk of spreading COVID-19 can occur when:

  • employees are not entitled to sick leave (such as casual workers) and may continue working if they are unwell
  • employees do not seek medical attention should they become ill, for example when seasonal, contract and casual do not have a relationship with a local GP
  • employees do not know where to access reliable information, or information in appropriate languages about COVID-19 safety and precautions

Fatigue risks in the agriculture industry

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed working and living environments for many employees in the agriculture industry. Factors such as increased stress in work and personal life, changes to working environments and increased work demands, can increase the risk of fatigue in the workplace. Fatigue can affect a person’s health and increase the chance of workplace injuries.

Controlling risks

Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it isn't possible to eliminate the risk, it must be controlled, so far as is reasonably practicable.

The types of control measures required depends on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas.

Face masks in workplaces

Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health about face masks are in place across Victoria. For more information see the guidance Managing COVID-19 risks: Face masks in workplaces.

COVID-19 vaccinations in workplaces

COVID-19 vaccination is one control measure that can reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces. This should be part of a suite of controls used to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces.

Consult with employees

Employers have a duty to consult with employees, independent contractors and any HSRs, so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consultation on identifying hazards or risks and decisions about how to control risks associated with COVID-19. The consultation should be conducted in accordance with any agreed consultation procedures.

Induction

A comprehensive induction process can reduce the risk to health and safety, and should include:

  • providing a full induction and orientation into the role
  • providing support contacts
  • training in relevant policies and procedures, for example, infection control incident reporting, and specific controls associated with COVID-19

Ensure employees know what to do

An employer's duty to eliminate or reduce risks associated with exposure to COVID-19 so far as is reasonably practicable includes ensuring that:

  • confirmed COVID-19 cases do not attend the workplace
  • employees know what to do or who to notify if they feel unwell or suspect they've been infected, according to the information provided by DH
  • employees who have been in contact with confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 are instructed to follow DH procedures
  • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including those who have been tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting their test result

The symptoms of COVID-19 are: fever, chills or sweats, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose and loss or change in sense of smell or taste.

Some people may also experience headache, muscle soreness, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

If an employee develops any COVID-19 symptoms, however mild, they should:

  • self-isolate immediately, get tested and if needed, seek advice from their doctor or the Victorian Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398.
  • tell their employer as soon as possible, follow the procedures their workplace has in place to deal with symptomatic people, and update their employer if their situation changes, for example: if they receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis

In the event of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case or cases at the workplace, Pandemic Orders issued by the Victorian Minister for Health may also require employers to take specific response actions.

Screening

Employers should implement an employee screening process to minimise the introduction of COVID-19 into the workplace. Employers should ask employees before they enter the workplace if they are currently subject to any Pandemic Order requirements (such as needing to isolate or quarantine), and instruct employees who have been in contact with confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 to follow Department of Health (DH) procedures.

Workplace mapping

In the event of an employee being confirmed as having COVID-19, those who are potentially affected need to be quickly identified.

To enable tracing of those who have come into contact with the confirmed case, employers should implement processes to record the schedule and work locations for employees.

Physical distancing

Physical distancing of at least 1.5 metres should be implemented wherever possible.  Employers should consider each work task and whether there is a safe alternative way to undertake the work with an increased distance between employees.

Other controls may include:

  • marking safe distances in work, transit and break areas (for example on floors and walls)
  • considering different shift patterns to minimise the number of employees onsite (for example introducing morning and afternoon shifts)
  • staggering start times, break and finish times to avoid congestion in high traffic areas and minimise employees coming into contact with each other as they move around the workplace
  • planning for how physical distancing will be maintained during inclement weather (for example use of lunch rooms and amenities)
  • installing temporary physical barriers (such as plastic screens) between work areas, where appropriate
  • spreading out furniture in common areas to maintain physical distancing requirements. When changing the physical layout of the workplace, ensure the layout allows safe entering, exiting and moving about the workplace
  • directing delivery drivers to remain in vehicles and use contactless methods (such as mobile phones) to communicate with employees, wherever possible
  • rostering employees that share accommodation together into dedicated work units, to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission between employees that do not live together. Dedicated work units should still practice physical distancing wherever possible and should be separated from other work units (such as not sharing living or transport facilities).

Under the Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health, Workplaces may also be required to comply with particular density quotient rules.

Where it is not possible to undertake work tasks and maintain physical distancing, other control measures need to be implemented. For example:

  • minimising the number of person-to-person interactions that need to be completed within 1.5 metres
  • minimising the number of individuals involved in activities that need to occur within 1.5 metres of each other
  • providing personal protective equipment (PPE) (such as gloves and face masks)

Note: PPE is a protection of last resort, and should only be used in certain situations.

More information about the safe use of PPE is set out below.

Staff gatherings and training

Where possible, encourage the use of video and teleconferencing instead of face-to-face meetings.

When face-to-face meetings or training sessions do take place, employers should ensure that:

  • the area enables employees to physically distance
  • the number of people attending is kept to a minimum
  • the amount of face-to-face time is kept to a minimum
  • if indoors, the area is well ventilated
  • density quotients are complied with
  • other risk control measures continue to be adhered to

    Ventilation

    People in indoor environments, particularly in crowded or inadequately ventilated spaces, are at a higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. When someone infected with COVID-19 has been present, the virus may linger in poorly ventilated spaces or areas with stagnant air for a longer period of time.

    Providing an adequate supply of fresh air (ventilation) to enclosed areas of a workplace dilutes the number of airborne virus particles and lowers transmission risk. Improving ventilation alone does not reduce the risk of transmission via droplets and contaminated surfaces. It needs to be considered as part of a suite of infection control measures.

    Adequate ventilation can be achieved using natural or mechanical ventilation, or a combination of the two.

    • Natural ventilation is fresh air coming in through open windows, doors or air vents.
    • Mechanical ventilation means a method of forced or induced ventilation using mechanical air-handling systems that bring in fresh air from outside. It forms part of a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

    Note: Natural ventilation is dependent on variable local conditions (eg window opening size, weather conditions including wind speed and direction) and may not always be effective in quickly removing airborne virus particles.

    Better ventilation can be achieved by:

    • increasing the rate that air is supplied
    • increasing the supply of fresh outdoor air
    • reducing or eliminating recirculated air in HVAC systems
    • improving filtration for air recirculated by HVAC systems if the ventilation rate is not compromised
    • regular maintenance of the HVAC system, including changing filters

    Guidance on HVAC systems is available in AS1668.2:2012 The use of ventilation and air-conditioning in buildings, Part 2: Mechanical ventilation in buildings. Further information on HVAC systems and COVID-19 is available in World Health Organization (WHO) guidance Roadmap to improve and ensure good indoor ventilation in the context of COVID-19 (who.int).

    In areas where it is not possible to maintain adequate ventilation and there is a high risk of transmission, portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered air cleaners may be appropriate to be used to reduce the concentration of airborne virus particles and other aerosol contaminants. These units are not a substitute for ventilation. Employers should assess the risk and/or undertake a ventilation assessment to identify what ventilation strategies are appropriate for the space and whether an air cleaner is needed and consider operational placement and maintenance of these units.

    Employers should work with the building's owner or manager to improve ventilation where possible. Engaging a suitably qualified person such as an occupational hygienist or a ventilation engineer to advise and assist should also be considered.

    For more information about ventilation, see the following documents on the DH Infection prevention control (IPC) resources page:

    • COVID-19: Ventilation principles and strategies to reduce aerosol transmission in community and workplace settings.
    • Department of Health IPC Ventilation Policy.
    • Coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission from air-circulating, wind-blowing devices and activities.
    • Ventilation strategies to reduce COVID-19 infection, when used as per DH guidelines.

    Hygiene

    Maintaining good hygiene can prevent the spread of COVID-19. Employers should:

    • Ensure all employees follow good hygiene practices, including:
      • washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
      • covering coughs and sneezes, or coughing into their elbow or shoulder
      • avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth
    • Display hygiene information in prominent locations in the workplace such as meal break rooms, work sheds and toilets and in a format that is understood by all workers.
    • Provide alcohol-based hand sanitiser at workplace entrances and exits, and in all meal and break rooms.
    • Communicate with staff about hand sanitiser locations and encourage regular use.
    • Regularly discuss hygiene requirements with employees and supervise to ensure they are followed.
    • Direct visiting delivery drivers and contractors to use alcohol-based hand sanitiser before handling products being delivered.
    • Ensure handwashing facilities, or if not possible, alcohol-based hand sanitiser, is readily available for employees after physically handling deliveries.

    Amenities

    Employers must ensure that employees have access to appropriate amenities. Employers should review and revise the number and locations of amenities, to reduce movement around the workplace.

    Amenities need to include:

    • hand washing facilities (whether permanent or temporary), such as a wash basin, clean running water, soap and paper towels, placed in strategic locations to ensure employees can access them in a timely manner
    • access to hand sanitiser
    • rubbish bins with touch-free lids (such as foot pedal bins)
    • thorough and regular sanitation
    • appropriate waste management systems

    Shared tools, plant and equipment

    Avoid the shared use of tools, plant and equipment wherever possible.

    Where it is not possible to eliminate shared use, employers should:

    • Provide cleaning products (such as alcohol spray or solution) where communal tools, plant and equipment are located.
    • Keep cleaning products with tools, plant and equipment as they move around the site.
    • Ensure all operators thoroughly wash or sanitise their hands before and after every use.
    • Ensure all parts of tools, plant and equipment (including handles and handrails) are wiped down before and after use.

    The shared use of phones, desks, offices, computers and other devices should be avoided. Where this is not possible, these items should be regularly disinfected.

    Cleaning

    Thorough and regular cleaning needs to be undertaken of all:

    • work areas
    • transit areas (such as cars, buses and minibuses)
    • communal and meal break areas
    • shared facilities (such as bathrooms and kitchens)
    • shared equipment

    Training on the safe use of chemicals and personal hygiene requirements must be provided to any person undertaking cleaning.

    Cleaning needs to be conducted in accordance with the DH information on cleaning and disinfecting for business and construction sites.

    Personal protective equipment

    Employers must provide information, instruction and training on the safe use, decontamination, maintenance and disposal of any PPE provided. They must also provide any necessary supervision.

    Any PPE provided needs to be practical for the work environment (allowing the necessary visibility and mobility) and properly decontaminated or disposed of at the end of every shift.

    Employers should monitor and encourage correct use of PPE, for example by providing information on posters about:

    • washing or sanitising hands before putting PPE on, and putting face protection on before gloves
    • removing gloves before face protection, washing or sanitising hands after removing PPE and decontaminating or disposing of used PPE safely

    Managing work-related fatigue

    Employers must identify fatigue hazards in the workplace, assess and control the risks, so far as reasonably practicable.

    Control measures may include:

    • ensuring employees have sufficient sleep and recovery opportunity to mitigate the risk of fatigue
    • enacting roster rules to minimise fatigue that:
      • enable a minimum of ten hours between shifts
      • minimise consecutive night shifts
      • enable two nights' recovery sleep after a set of night shifts.
    • ensuring processes are in place to minimise breaches of fatigue-based roster rules, such as shift swaps and overtime
    • processes to assess and report employee fatigue and psychological wellbeing.

    Commuting to, from and around work

    Where an employer or host employer provides transport to employees, they should:

    • Avoid carrying multiple passengers in cars or buses, unless they live in a household together.
    • Where employees from different households must travel together, maintain a physical distance of at least 1.5m between passengers during transportation, wherever possible.
    • Set the air conditioning to external airflow rather than to recirculation, or have windows open where appropriate.
    • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (such as doors, handrails, seatbelts and windows) with appropriate cleaning and disinfectant solutions in between each trip.
    • If transport is provided by a labour hire firm, consult the labour hire firm about how this will occur.

    For more information on managing risks of employee exposure to COVID-19 when using vehicles for work, see Managing COVID-19 exposure risks: travelling in vehicles

    Accommodating employees

    Where an employer or host employer provides accommodation to employees, they should ensure:

    • adequate and accessible facilities are in place to support the implementation of physical distancing and good hygiene
    • arrangements are in place to enable workers to meet self-isolation requirements, if needed
    • accommodation is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before the employees arrive, after they leave, and as regularly as possible during their stay
    • If accommodation is provided by a labour hire firm, consult the labour hire firm about how this will occur.

    What to do if an employee has COVID-19

    Employers should establish a response plan and procedure for suspected and confirmed cases, which should include:

    • arrangements for consultation and communication with employees, including making sure contact details are up to date
    • maintaining workplace mapping information
    • identifying site locations for cleaning and disinfection
    • implementing an appropriate cleaning and disinfection regime, which should be overseen by a competent person, before allowing re-entry into the affected areas
    • providing employees with relevant information prior to re-entering the site and resuming work
    • reviewing and revising systems to ensure risks are effectively controlled, in consultation with any HSRs and employees.

    In the event of a confirmed COVID-19 case at the workplace, Pandemic Orders made by the Victorian Minister for Health may also require employers to take specific response actions.

    Legal duties

    Employers have duties under OHS Act, which include that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

    • Provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors.
    • Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, eliminate the risk. Where it isn't possible to eliminate the risk, reduce it, so far as is reasonably practicable.
    • Provide adequate facilities for the welfare of employees and independent contractors.
    • Provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health.
    • Provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English.
    • Monitor the health of employees of the employer.
    • Monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control.
    • Ensure that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer.
    • Consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them.

    Self-employed persons must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that people are not exposed to risks to their health and safety arising from how they conduct their business undertaking.

    A person with management or control of a workplace must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health.

    Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:

    • Take reasonable care for their own health and safety.
    • Take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace.
    • Co-operate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act.