Corn detasselers will be sporting extra gear and will be spaced out farther than normal on buses this summer as precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Detasseling contractors have drafted their plans for the year and they involve physical distancing where possible, use of personal protective equipment and disinfecting transportation vehicles.
Kent Willmore, president of Chatham-based WR Deatsseling, said he consulted with all levels of government while deciding on the new rules, which were recently released in a video posted to the company’s website.
“We’re just looking forward to having a productive summer with these students and we want everyone to be safe,” he said. “We understand that it’s those young ones and seemingly the healthy folks are the ones that can have the virus inside of them and then pass it on to others who are immunocompromised or whatnot.”
In terms of personal protective equipment (PPE), the workers will have a face shield, glasses and a cloth to wrap around their mouths and noses. WR has also had a no-skin showing policy for three years.
The employees will be asked to keep their PPE on at the pickup location. On the bus that transports them to fields, one person will sit on each seat, which means the company will use more buses this year, said Willmore.
“Typically, corn crews could have up to 48 or even more workers on a bus and that’s just not an ideal situation because you’re really infringing upon social distancing,” he said. “We are going to have procedures in PPE in place, so we actually technically could do that, but we just don’t want to add that risk to the equation.”
At one student per seat, there will still be only about four or feet between them, he said. This policy also means the company will hire about 1,200 students this year, down from 1,500, so the work days may run about an hour longer than usual.
During lunch, the workers will be allowed to take off their face shields once they are six feet apart from each other. Some will eat on the bus and others will eat outside.
WR will also have health screening questions every day and the buses will be cleaned twice daily.
Employees will also have to bring their own garbage bags this year and there won’t be a communal water system.
Taking off PPE when it is unsafe to do so would be “grounds for dismissal,” said Willmore
“We’ve gone with the extreme safe side of the equation to deal with the fact that they are teenagers and there are added risks there, but we do have excellent supervision on our buses,” he said.
Rob Rowe of Rowe’s Corn Detasseling Crew also said they’ve put together a plan, which could change as the COVID-19 situation progresses. There are a few differences from the WR plan.
Rowe said they will also have one worker per bus seat, which will require more buses. The supervisors – Rowe and his brother-in-law, Chris McCurdy – will sanitize the bus at “major touchpoints” every time someone enters the bus.
“We’re going to have, obviously, additional water, but also sanitize containers all throughout the bus,” said Rowe.
The crew will also have face masks, which will be worn at all times, including during lunch, he said. They will also wear face buffs around their mouths and noses.
“They may not like it, but they’ll get used to it,” said Rowe.
While the students wait to get picked up, they will also have to wear their PPE and be six feet apart from each other, he said.
Rowe said this year they will have one employee in every other row out in the fields. When an employee finishes their row, they will come back up the next row. He said between 80 and 130 students are usually hired each year.
He said Dr. David Colby, Chatham-Kent’s medical officer of health, is aware of their plan.
Colby said Chatham-Kent public health is working with detasseling contractors to make the work safer.
“It’s basically, are we going to be able to maintain physical distancing or separation controls?” he said. “I don’t anticipate a problem out in the fields. I think the biggest challenge is transportation to and from the corn fields.”
Cara Robinson, manager of healthy environments for public health, said she has been on a conference call with some of the contractors to establish “basic guidelines” and answer their questions.
She said they discussed how physical distancing is the “most important control measure” in any setting.
“In some cases, where the volume of workers and when transporting workers, maintaining physical distance may not be completely possible, so we talked about the use of personal protective equipment as well, to make sure that workers are protected at all times,” Robinson said.
Robinson said the employers have to make sure “the workers in their care are adequately protected” and that all workers understand the policies they have put in place and that they are followed.
Although the Seed Corn Growers of Ontario was not directly involving in deciding these policies, its chair, Garnet Snobelen, said the work of the detasselers is critical to the industry.
“In order to have a seed corn industry, we have to cross two varieties and, without the detasselers, that cross is not possible because they’re they key to the whole thing,” he said. “They have to remove the tassel from the one variety. They really are a key part of our whole industry.”