Vegetable grower’s experience with managing COVID-19 (AUSVEG VIC Executive Director)

Corrigan's Produce Farms
Corrigan's Produce Farms

We hear from Corrigan’s Produce Farms Managing Director and AUSVEG VIC Executive Director Deborah Corrigan who is dedicated to the betterment of the Victorian vegetable industry. Corrigan’s have contributed to a case study of an employee who contracted the COVID-19 virus in October 2020.

On Sunday 4th October I was contacted directly by DHHS who informed me that one of our employees had tested positive for COVID-19. There was an immediate wave of panic despite the fact we had a COVID-Safe plan in place. Our Safety Crisis Management Team quickly came together to work through our plan with DHHS.

The employee who tested positive is a Farm Hand in their mid-40s, and is not a seasonal worker. They are employed full-time and has been a part of the Corrigan’s team for 10 years.

Our COVID-Safe plan is an extensive document that is approximately 30 pages in length. At the time of the case diagnosis we were operating with COVID restrictions in place. They included:

  • Conducting COVID-19 Risk Assessments and reviewing them frequently due to the dynamic nature of the pandemic.
  • All staff were frequently reminded of COVID-19, its current status in the Victorian community and what to do if they should experience symptoms whilst at home or at work.
  • All staff were required to wear appropriate face masks that met DHHS safety standards and were trained in the safe and correct use of masks.
  • Additional hand washing stations were set up.
  • Hand sanitation stations were set up in all high traffic/frequently visited areas at all sites.
  • Harvest teams who did not frequently report to hand washing stations during breaks, due to operational demands, were trained in additional hand sanitisation.
  • A sanitising schedule was in action for all frequently touched/visited areas including doors, handles, benches and other high contact areas.
  • Additional deep sanitation cleaning was conducted daily on top of the existing Quality Assurance (QA) cleaning program.
  • The number of employees travelling in light vehicles was reduced to maintain physical distancing. These vehicles were also required to keep windows open and set air conditioning to external.
  • Visitor access to the site was minimised to business-critical requirements only and meetings were conducted remotely/via teleconference where possible.
  • Access to the enclosed office environment was restricted.
  • Occupancy restrictions were implemented for common areas such as lunchrooms.
  • Regular Safety Bulletins/TBTs were issued/conducted in English and other languages to ensure the information was understood by all employees.
  • The Labour Hire Agencies formulated their own COVID-19 Safety Plans and provided them to our business. There is regular and ongoing communication between Corrigan’s and Labour Hire Agencies about COVID-19 safety measures.
  • Working from home arrangements were put in place where practicable.
  • Employee mapping was in place to trace where employees worked and ate lunch each day through daily attendance records. These records included a workplace screening to ensure the employees were not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, had not been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and were not subject to any health directions in relation to self-isolation or quarantine directions.

We were under normal operations. Corrigan’s operate with a year-long harvest period. Produce is grown, harvested, and distributed daily.

The financial impact that a single positive COVID-19 case was high and was felt immediately. The losses included:

  • The loss of sales – all the pending orders scheduled for packing/distribution in the following days had to be cancelled.
  • The reduction in our ability to operate at full production for two weeks due to many of our key staff were in immediate isolation.
  • The inability to plant seedlings due to closure is going to have a future effect on supply and sales.
  • The cost associated with the deep clean conducted onsite the following day (internal employees cleaning & external cleaning companies).
  • The cost associated with HR consultation to guide our employees through the situation.
  • The costs associated with ongoing prevention methods such as modification of equipment lines and transportation around our farms.
Approximately 70 employees & 40 labour hire workers.
The impact on our business was more than financial, it was mentally very challenging for us and our staff. The emotional impact was something that I wasn’t expecting.
We implemented and followed our COVID-Safe plan and worked as a united team with our staff.
Our COVID-Safe plan demonstrated strong preventative measures. We are grateful the detected COVID-19 case did not spread within the business. A large portion of our staff were tested prior to returning to work and all results came back negative.
The cost of business operations had gone up due to modified conditions as a result of COVID-19.  After the detection, these costs increased again with further additions to cleaning regimes, additional preventative measures, and capital expenditure.

We learnt about the detected case from DHHS. We recommended all staff to be tested. We then worked closely with DHHS to identify any potential close contacts to ensure they were notified and tested as soon as possible. The term ‘close contact’ was difficult to distinguish at first as we have a lot of employees who are family and live in the same household. We also found some information from DHHS and WorkSafe to be contradicting.

Our detected case came towards the end of the second wave in Victoria and it was surprising how much confusion around COVID-19 was still apparent. Our questions were met with more questions and we were continually referred to someone else in search of answers. You could only imagine the difficulties the initial clusters from the first wave would have experienced.

The following day we conducted the “deep clean” by an external professional cleaning company. There was no normal operations on this day and only selected personnel were permitted on site.

The next day we were cleared by DHHS to resume operations however only in certain areas. We needed to adjust operations to perform our usual production (that occurs within 4 packhouses) into 1 packhouse and utilise our outdoor areas that were safe for operations. We were still down a large portion of our employees who were at home (either identified as close contacts or were living in the same household). Although they had received a negative test result, these employees were required to quarantine for 14 days and be retested before returning to work.

Our employees returned to work as they were cleared and additional onsite testing was offered.

I believe that more translated information and resources would have been more beneficial. Staff were confused and concerned.
Retailers were actually very helpful and supporting.
Approximately 27 employees were identified as close contacts and were required to self-isolate. During this time, we were grateful that other employees really stepped up and took on the additional responsibilities.
It is paramount to have a current COVID-Safe plan. It is very important to ensure that documentation is maintained and that the information can be easily retrieved if needed. Our first response was to move through our attendance forms to identify who was onsite each day, where they were working and where they had their breaks. It is also crucial to ensure COVID cleaning regimes, on top of usual cleaning programs, are thorough and consistent.
We are conducting regular Toolbox Talks & Safety Bulletins to relay any regulation changes.