Feedback from industry has suggested that sharing learnings from COVID-19 affected businesses are extremely powerful to improve COVID-19 risk management across primary industry sectors. The following case studies represent actual NSW businesses NSW DPI has worked with to manage COVID-19 incidents. Business names have been removed to maintain confidentiality.
Common observations during this current COVID period:
A large agricultural enterprise was impacted by COVID-19 with an employee testing positive from a routine swab. Employee had no symptoms and immediately stood down from work upon notification. Business had a very good COVID plan, face masks and had implemented the normal mitigations eg teams in bubbles, QR codes etc. At time of the test result, the business had approximately 60% of its workforce vaccinated with first dose. The business implemented its response plan and actively notified DPI and the local Public Health Unit. Even though this worker was working in only a small team, she lived in a share house with other members of her immediate family who also worked at the business but in different sections. This led to other sections and employees being unfortunately identified as close or casual contacts ultimately resulting in 1/3 of the workforce being furloughed to wait out their isolation. This had a significant impact on operations and the company was forced to dramatically restructure its workforce to keep operations going.
Lessons: Living arrangements for contacts and secondary contacts in the houses present a challenge to businesses. Most businesses have developed their COVID-19 plans very much focused on elements they can control eg who people come into contact with during production shifts. However as per this case, it is also important for businesses to identify social and family linkages within their workforce and where possible, further segregate teams along these lines to minimise any unforeseen consequences around contacts.
A large food processor was notified by one of their workers that they had tested positive to COVID-19 from a housemate (who did not work at the site). The worker did not return to work following the positive notification. The business had a very good COVID-19 plan, face masks and had pre-emptively undertaken an exercise with Health and DPI on COVID readiness. At that stage only a third of the workforce was vaccinated (although that has since improved). The business notified Health and DPI and commenced compiling who was a close and casual contact in the workforce. This person worked in the packing floor and the business had implemented strict segregation of the workforce. The affected worker was a casual employee with low English proficiency. In the case interview, she admitted to Health that she had felt sick some three days prior to being tested but came to work as she did not want to lose income. CCTV footage also indicated she had breached social distancing policy in the lunch room by sharing some of her food with another employee. As a result, the business lost approximately 2/3 of its workforce as close contacts with this having a prolonged impact on its operations.
Lessons: Casual workers and those with low English proficiency present particular issues to businesses to manage. Casual workers are not entitled to sick leave and hence are more likely to attend work even when showing COVID-19 symptoms given they only get paid for the time they work. There are also cultural aspects to consider with some workers having a tendency to not open up or be open regarding unsafe COVID-19 related actions or activities. COVID-19 safe practices need to be reinforced and communicated in relevant languages if required. Businesses need to consider strategies as to how they deal with casual labour and the risk that they may present to work whilst sick.
Additionally, the use of CCTV particularly in high risk areas such as lunch rooms and entry to change rooms, was invaluable to identify those staff who were close and casual contacts (and ruling workers out as contacts). The use of CCTV should be considered by businesses, with adequate staff consultation, however they need to be monitored to verify work practices at ongoing times, not just after a COVID event.
A large food processor was notified that a worker had tested positive for COVID-19. The worker lived with his mother who also worked at the plant. They worked in the same area. The business furloughed both employees and initiated their COVID response plan. The plant had a good COVID-19 plan, the workforce was segregated into sections, and the business had proactively encouraged their staff to get vaccinated to the point that 90% were fully vaccinated. However, upon review of CCTV footage, it was observed that the original infected worker had often left his designated lunchroom to talk to friends from another section of the plant in their separate lunch room. Additionally, a number of workers were observed in the CCTV footage not wearing face masks properly. This dramatically increased the number of close and casual contacts as Health took a ‘no risk’ approach. The plant lost approximately 5 days production as a result.
Lessons: COVID plans are no different to any other documented risk mitigation plan eg HACCP, biosecurity etc. They must be monitored and the requirements complied with. The failure to comply with critical requirements of the plan by a small section of the workforce (as identified via CCTV footage) undermined the credibility of the businesses and forced Health to take a much more risk adverse approach to identifying contacts.
A large food processor had a positive COVID-19 case in a worker. The worker shared a house with three other contracted workers and had picked up the infection from community transmission. Once notified, the plant ceased operations to take stock. All workers were tested. They were able to identify that only three other workers were contacts due to excellent monitoring and implementation of their COVID Plan. They proactively got their entire workforce vaccinated over the course of three days and were able to resume full operations with a minimum of disruption. They also implemented rapid antigen testing to screen any positive workers as community transmission at that stage in the location was very high.
Lesson: Good plans properly implemented and proactive steps can dramatically reduce the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on the workforce and business. The use of targeted rapid antigen testing can be of benefit, however the cost and practicality of such testing limits its long term usage by most businesses and accordingly, may be better suited to short intense periods coinciding with high community transmission rates.
A small/medium food processor organised a pizza party for its workforce to celebrate a workplace achievement. This was during the height of community transmissions in parts of NSW. Unfortunately, one of the workers attending the party was infected. As a result, its entire workforce of 24 employees was stood down as close contacts and the business was unable to operate for a number of weeks. Approximately 16 workers subsequently tested positive.
Lesson: Companies need to take their COVID-19 risk management responsibilities seriously otherwise it can have significant negative impacts on the health and welfare of their staff and business.