COVID-19 spreads easily from person-to-person. But, it is not believed to be transferred over significant outdoor distances. In fact, health experts still believe that risk is significantly reduced even by people who are together outdoors if they stay more than six feet apart. So, if you are operating a tractor or other vehicle as a sole operator, out in the middle of a farm field and are healthy, you are at near zero risk from person-to-person spread if you alone. However, almost all operators come in some contact with visitors, ag service personnel, hired employees and other people.
The virus can be spread by a person infected with the virus who does not appear or “know” they are sick—or they may have acquired the virus but not yet show symptoms. This is what health professionals are calling “asymptomatic” individuals.
During this time when many people are staying home and working in isolated locations, it’s good if you are a grower or other ag professional to limit contact with others by transacting as much business as possible by telephone/text messaging/email; limiting contact with visitors; and if you must send time in direct contact with non-family members, keeping a six-foot distance.
The other possible situation that could lead to exposure is sharing a cab (on a tractor or other machine) when things get busy—or when you have employees or others who might be trading off and using the same machine as you or other operators. Here are some things you can you to reduce the level of risk that exists by sharing equipment:
Know the symptoms of COVID-19 and DO NOT allow workers onto the farm if they are sick or have known exposures to and contact with others (including family members) who have had the virus over the last 14+ days. Two common symptoms from CDC include: cough and shortness of breath. CDC also notes that having at least two of the following symptoms can mean that a person has COVID-19—fever; chills; repeated shaking with chills; muscle pain; headache; sore throat; and/or new loss of taste or smell.
Any person who suspects they are sick based on these symptoms should call their local clinic and get advice. They should not come to work on the farm as they can spread the illness. Some farms are asking every employee to check their temperature each morning and report it before showing up for work. This is also a good time to review (or create) a “sick leave” policy for hired workers. Many workers are incentivized to show up for work even if they might feel sick because they need a paycheck.
Even if a person appears healthy, shared equipment should be cleaned between operators. Some specifics include:
Every operator should start each workday/shift with clean and laundered clothing – normal machine washing with laundry detergent and heated drying will kill the virus. Warm or hot water is better. Operators should shower since their last contact with the “public” and/or since their last work shift.
Between operators – if possible, leave cab windows/doors as open as possible (as long as the machine is parked in a secure location). Wind blowing through the cab will help clear and clean the air in the cab. Direct exposure to the UV light in bright sunshine will also be helpful, though it will not impact virus particles in shaded areas or if sunlight is shining through glass.
As you approach a vehicle to begin a day or shift – consider EVERY part/location that might have been touched by the last operator – this includes handholds, fuel tank caps, ladders, oil dipsticks and door handles. These should be wiped down thoroughly. Also consider wiping down hitches, wagon tongues, and hitch pins on equipment. When cleaning, wear waterproof protective gloves – then remove and store these carefully when cleaning is complete both inside and outside the operator’s station.
Several options exist for cleaning. The virus is broken down with soapy warm water and a wet towel/cloth. Some operators are using antibacterial “wipes” or other commercial spray cleaners that are listed as antibacterial/antimicrobial. Another option that kills and breaks down the virus is a diluted bleach/water solution. CDC recommends 1/3-cup of household bleach per gallon of water OR 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water applied generously through a spray bottle. Bleach/water solution should only be applied to hard, non-porous surfaces. When bleach-water solution is used, it should be sprayed on and allowed to dry. Never apply bleach directly to cloth, fabric, electronic components, the operator’s panel, touch screens, etc. While bleach/water is effective against the virus, it may permanently stain clothing and other fabric or damage some components in the cab.
Wipe down EVERYTHING that may have been touched, sneezed or coughed on, or otherwise exposed to the previous operator. This includes the steering wheel, throttle, all levers/controls, knobs on heater/AC, door handles, window levers, etc. Again, warm soapy water or other disinfecting products are recommended. Windows can be wiped down with warm, soapy water and then finished with window cleaner (most consumer windows cleaning products are not approved as disinfectants – but if wiped down first with soapy water, you can finish the job with window cleaning products).
Do not use harsh cleaners on electronic parts, touch screens or other components. Check the operator’s manual. Consider carrying a pocketful of cleaning wipes that have isopropyl alcohol (which kills the virus) to wipe down these parts. Also, use these wipes to frequently clean your eyeglasses (including sunglasses) and your smartphone – both of which can get dirty from frequent use.
Once things are wiped down in the cab and you are ready to roll, remove and store protective gloves and use some gel or foam hand sanitizer. If you keep hand sanitizer in the cab (recommended) – keep it out of direct sunlight and know that over time some of the alcohol will evaporate (even though it is sealed) – so replace often.
Consider more frequent cab air filter changeouts – most air handling systems are bringing in and filtering outside air. While there are no known concerns about these filters spreading virus, air movement in the cab during operation is important and a clean filter will help insure maximum airflow and comfort for the operator.
With all of these precautions, some operators are also purchasing and using a bundle of thick cotton work gloves they can wear throughout the day – changing gloves frequently between tasks (like hitching/unhitching) or touching any surface not known for sure to have been cleaned. A bundle of a dozen pairs of gloves can be purchased for under $15. Used and dirty cotton gloves can then be thrown into a sealed plastic bag and laundered each night with other work clothes. Do not use cloth gloves for tasks that involve liquids/wet conditions. Never use leather gloves for virus protection – they cannot be laundered and could harbor the virus. Waterproof gloves will also provide protection and should be used during cleaning, but are not durable and are not comfortable for long term use for most people.
While hand sanitizers and gloves do help by killing or reducing contact with the virus, nothing beats handwashing. Wash with soap, warm water, and scrub hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds. Get all areas (knuckles, fingernails, between fingers, around rings, etc.). Dry with a CLEAN paper towel.
Staying safe and healthy during these times require that you think like a “CSI investigator” and consider how and where the virus might spread. It takes a little bit of extra work and care, but your health is vital, and our growing world population needs you!