Farm and agriculture workers feel Covid-19 pressure

Key workers in the UK’s most dangerous work face extra hazards at this time

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Our food, farming and agricultural workers are key workers, vital in the nation’s war against Covid-19, they are providing our food often under very difficult circumstances.

Farming, forestry and agriculture – where Unite members work – remains, according to the HSE (health and safety executive) – the UK’s most dangerous industry. Over the last 10 years almost one worker has been killed at work each week and many have had serious injuries.

Now there’s a further unseen danger lurking – Covid-19 – so we asked Landworker’s Stay Safe correspondent, Helen Armstrong, to advise our rural and agricultural members on how they can best protect themselves at work from the virus. She writes:

Key workers 

Land workers, are part of the food production chain, so you are key (or critical) workers. Key workers can send their children to school so that they are free to go to work. If key workers develop symptoms of Covid-19, they must follow the same self-isolation rules as everyone else until they recover, when they can return to work.

Many workers who are not key workers can also travel to work if it cannot be done from home, but employers and the self-employed are expected to arrange for home working wherever possible.

Yet even key workers may not be able to work during the crisis, if their employers cannot keep the workplace open. Workers in businesses of every size are being laid off as demand vanishes while the public stays at home.

At the moment there is no clarity about how long it will take before the virus can be contained so that it will not overwhelm the NHS. Some predictions say months rather than weeks.

Meanwhile, key workers must try to continue to work, while also keeping the rules of social distancing.

One difficult area is cabs. As we write, refuse workers are concerned about the virus spreading in lorry cabs where social distancing is not possible. (They also risk infection from over-filled bins and badly bagged tissue waste.)

This could affect farm and forestry workers if they share a vehicle to get to a work site. This must be discussed with managers and employers to assess the risks and find out if there is an alternative.

Face masks are currently not in general use in most work situations in the UK. Masks can reduce the effect of aerosols (coughing and sneezing), and so help to protect other people from you, but if you get to that stage, you should be self-isolating, and used masks should be thrown away or carefully sterilised by the manufacturer’s instructions.

Also there are concerns about fit. Some workers using official masks have been told to shave their beards, so that the mask seals properly and unfiltered air cannot get in around the chin.

The World Health Organisation has a website with guidance and the situation is under constant review.

As time goes by, better masks may be available and the government may extend its recommendations.

On March 27 the NHS sent an advisory letter to everyone with certain existing medical conditions, and all over-70s, regarding degrees of isolation. These fall into three tiers and if you are a recipient you should consider carefully what this means regarding your work, even though you are a key worker.

Social distancing

“For farmworkers the clear message is to practice social distancing and careful hand hygiene, especially when vehicles have multiple drivers or when sharing tools etc,” commented Steve Leniec, farmworker and Unite agricultural subsector chair.

He continues, “Avoid travelling in vehicles with other workers where possible and sharing canteen facilities. Any worker who needs to self-isolate, because either they or a family member has symptoms, MUST do so.

“Workers who have underlying health issues should consider self-isolation. For any workers laid off due to Covid-19 their employer can access government money to cover 80 per cent of their wage and those in tied housing have protection against eviction. Self-employed workers also have help, however they have to wait until June for any money.

“With regard to Covid-19 we do not have any PPE, but we are practicing social distancing. This can be a challenge with regular deliveries and drivers who are not always following the rule – recently a mobile seed cleaner arrived with two operatives who clearly weren’t too concerned about the virus, and seemed rather surprised by the way we kept our distance.

“Currently the daily milk collection is ok, however if drivers catch the virus or self-isolate this could become a problem. As could scheduled herd TB tests which will challenge social distancing as we handle cattle and work with vets,” he reported.

We’ve already heard reports that milk is being thrown away because of problems in the supply chain – putting many dairy businesses at risk.

Likewise with restaurants, cafes and hotels now closed, orders have fallen and some farms and garden growers have lost trade. Inevitably, some workers are being laid off.


If you are a self-employed contractor, as of March 26, the government has announced “cash grants for at least three months” to the self-employed, but you must have at least one year’s accounts to the end of the 2018-2019 tax year.

But if you are facing problems remember to contact your local Unite office as soon as you can.

Steve adds, “It is interesting to see how key to a functioning society many ‘unskilled’ workers really are, from farmworkers, to pack house workers, to delivery drivers and shop workers.

“We are all part of the food supply chain and it is only when the shelves are empty that the public notices and values us. Perhaps this will change as society re-evaluates what is important and what keeps a country functioning, providing the essentials of life. People might begin to see us as key workers too.”

Coronavirus in the workplace – helpful sites

 Some contact advice and information sources that might help:Visit Unite for the all aspects of Covid-19 – both health, legal, work and pay issues.  And see here for Unite’s health and safety support and resources.

For information and updates on benefits, adjustments to help workers during the pandemic;

Help for the self-employed

The ACAS website provides another portal into government and benefits information, as well as instruction on how to seek help if you are suffering from symptoms;

HSE has advice for workers with asthma, and general Covid-19 news

Farming News – BBC farming today

Remember to contact your Unite representative if anything is unclear. Unite is there for you.

By Helen Armstrong


  • This feature was due to appear in the spring edition of Landworker magazine which has been cancelled. Originally written on April 9, we have updated the text where possible, Ed.

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