by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Laura Biasillo, agricultural economic development specialist with CCE-Broome County, spoke about the importance of workers’ involvement in food safety on the farm at a recent GAPs training workshop.
Photo by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you want to comply with the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) program, your farm employees represent the vital link. Laura Biasillo, agricultural economic development specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension Broome County, spoke on “Worker Health, Hygiene & Training” as part of the recent two-day GAPs workshop.

“Many of us have workers who don’t feel 100%,” Biasillo said, “but feel they must come into work. Maybe they don’t wash their hands properly after they’ve been sick.” That can spread illness onto fresh produce and then to end users.

Biasillo believes worker training should include worker health, hygiene, behavior and learning.

“Workers are the foundation to implementation of food safety practices,” she said. They will need training not just on what to do for their own benefit, but the farm policy on handling these issues. “If someone’s not feeling well, how do you address that?” she added.

Workers who are sick with a communicable illness should not show up for work – or at least perform duties not related to handling food, for example.

Policies such as wearing jewelry, gloves and first aid should all be in writing and be part of an orientation which new and returning employees sign. They should also know what corrective action will take place when there’s an infraction.

“If workers see something, they should say something,” Biasillo said.

“Workers” are those who are paid, unpaid, volunteers, visitors and family members. To a certain level, they all need training to stay safe.

“It becomes a culture so everyone from the top down is all working toward the same goal,” Biasillo said.

This may seem overkill; however, Biasillo said that since each farm worker handles food which the end user may not wash, it’s vital to keep it clean.

Food safety should also include policies on animal intrusion, fecal contamination, packing and transportation. Hygiene seems like something everyone should know, but Biasillo thinks it bears repeating.

Farmers are required to have a restroom or portable toilet within half a mile of where employees are working. It must include potable water, single-use towels and soap. Hand sanitizer is not an approved replacement for soap. Biasillo added that the water cannot be from a source that requires the hands to touch something to turn off the water since that would contaminate the hands.

It’s also important to check on the supplies frequently. “It’s the worst thing to go in there and find there’s been no soap for three or four days,” she said.

It’s not advisable to rely on employees’ notification. Farm management needs to enforce use of the toilet – not a field or hedgerow. “Depending upon the country of origin of your workers, some may not believe in using toilet paper or may throw it in the garbage can,” Biasillo said.

Workers should be trained to wash their hands after using the toilet, smoking, eating or soiling their hands as well as before eating, smoking and starting or returning to work. They must also be trained to wash their hands thoroughly – front, back, between fingers and fingertips – with soap for a duration of at least 20 seconds.

The farm should keep first aid kits in both the field (a vehicle is okay) and the packing house. Farms should supply gloves to cover any bandages on hands so they don’t contaminate produce.

To ensure workers understand safety policies, farms should provide a written training plan with educational materials, a dedicated trainer, a standard with what the farm expects from workers and a sign-off sheet to indicate which trainings were completed (a sheet with this information on it signed by each employee should suffice). The farm owner or manager could provide the training.

Biasillo also said that modeling good behavior and posting visual aids are important, as well as casual, periodic reminders to comply with the policies, which could be part of a morning meeting.

“Pictures are good for people who are visual learners or if English isn’t their first language,” Biasillo said. “It’s also a good idea to post these near where it’s pertinent.” For instance, a hand washing poster makes sense near a sink.

Also Important: Visitor Hygiene

Although they’re not employees, visitors can still affect the food safety of a farm, especially if the farm offers U-pick produce or agritourism. Their higher volume of traffic can cause major safety risks.

“Visitors should be responsible for following the same food safety practices as workers,” Biasillo said. Posting signs, making restroom facilities easy to find and not allowing pets will curtail many issues.

“It’s hard enough to keep farm animals out of the fields,” Biasillo said. “Farm visitors can have a safety policy they can read and sign that’s good for six months or a year.”

For U-pick operations, posting the farm’s expectations and policies at the field entry can aid in maintaining safety.

“Consider providing clean picking containers,” Biasillo said. “If you provide reusable containers, you need to have a sanitation program in place for those containers. Single-use containers can be used for advertising.”

She noted that some farms provide sturdy buckets lined with plastic bags so it’s easy for customers to pick and carry their produce and never have a contaminated container touch their food. Since customers realize that new containers raise the price of their goods, it’s important for them to understand why a farm uses only new strawberry baskets, for example.

“It’s about food safety, and if we explain that, people will know we’re not trying to rip them off,” Biasillo said.

Agritourism locations can be especially prone to safety issues – and not just the kind that occur when a child falls off the pony ride. Biasillo noted a 2013 case in Minnesota involving a pumpkin farm that included a petting zoo. Children could pet and feed cows as well as select their favorite pumpkins. Since manure was in the bedding with the cows and E. coli was found on the hooves, hides and fur, seven people were sickened after visiting the farm, including three children. They had the same strain of E. coli as in cow manure.

“They were probably playing in the bedding, fluffing it around, and then since there was no place to wash their hands and no signs, the children likely were to eat something or put their hands in their mouths,” Biasillo said. A jury awarded a $7.55 million verdict to the family of one child.

“The business owners claimed they had no idea that children could get sick by touching animals,” Biasillo said. “They did not take preventative measures because they didn’t think the setting was a risk to children.”

Because farm families spend so much time around animals and handling produce, it’s second nature to wash up after choring or before handling food; however, Biasillo said that even if they don’t and remain healthy it doesn’t mean others aren’t at risk.

“We can’t operate under the assumption that everyone knows how a farm operates and that they should wash properly,” Biasillo said.