AUSTRALIA’S wool industry is on high alert as COVID-19 infections escalate in New South Wales heighten fears of outbreaks in shearing teams despite the statewide lockdown.
After the Australian Workers Union this week claimed many wool growers are filing to act on measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, WoolProducers Australia, the Shearing Contractors of Australia and the National Farmers Federation issued renewed advice on COVDI-19 protocols.
The AWU said while most rural businesses are going out of the way to be COVID safe, its members say many wool growers are totally ignoring the dangers.
This week Bogan, Bourke, Brewarrina, Coonamble, Gilgandra, Narromine, Walgett and Warren joined Tamworth and Dubbo in a growing list of local government areas under stay-at-home orders, the AWU said.
AWU NSW Vice President and its shearing organiser Ron Cowdrey said given the low level of health compliance it’s just a matter of time before there is a COVID case in a shed.
“With cases spreading into the regions, and the list of regional lockdowns escalating, regional employers have had to lift their game to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Shearing is considered an essential service and everyone needs to do their part to keep the industry operating,” he said.
“This ‘she’ll be right’ attitude by woolgrowers is really a disaster waiting to happen – one positive case in a single shed will have a devasting impact on the industry.”
Shearing Contractors Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said the industry could be hours from its first case being reported and
Mr Letchford said it is clear that “nothing is stopping this virus,” but farmers and shearing contractors share the responsibility under workplace health and safety laws to keep workers safe.
“We are very concerned about this,” he said.
He said SCAA members were urged two weeks ago encouraging them to assist their workers to get vaccinated.
“We strongly hope, given what has happened across New South Wales now, that people have started that process, it seems to be our only path out of this, to be vaccinated now.
“We are definitely on high alert, I’ve had more phone calls from concerned employers in the last 72 hours than in memory about how to deal with transporting workers and fulfilling the requirements in NSW,” he said.
“Employers and farmers are absolutely concerned because at the end of the day, after we talk about the health and safety of employees, we’ve got our busiest period coming up.
“Anecdotally we believe there will be no wholesale arrival of any New Zealand seasonal workers again due to coronavirus.”
He said the sheep and lamb numbers were up and the workforce has not increased.
“We could have many of our staff isolated for 14 days on real or false alerts and unfortunately there might be people going to hospital, or just losing workers due to being ill.”
Peak wool grower representative body, WoolProducers Australia, yeste3rday said it is working with the National Farmers’ Federation and the SCAA to protect Australia’s shearing workforce.
“In this unprecedented environment, growers and the shearing workforce are committed to doing what’s necessary to keep our workplaces safe and to ensure wool harvesting can continue,” WoolProducers chief executive officer Jo Hall said.
Ms Hall said all members of the shearing team including growers, shearers, shed hands and visitors to sheds, had a role to play to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“While there have been no major incidents to date, there is no such thing as zero risk. But we know that if everybody does their bit, follows the now well-established COVID-19 safe guidelines, and encourages vaccinations, then we are giving the industry the best chance at remaining COVID-19 free.”
WoolProducers’ Shearing Operations: Protocols in response to COVID-19 guide for growers and contractors on best practice COVID-19 measures for shearing sheds is available here https://www.woolproducers.com.au/covid
The protocols include advice on:
· 1.5m spacing inside the shearing shed
· Getting a COVID test and isolating when experiencing symptoms
· Getting vaccinated, if eligible to do so.
· Implementing QR codes, or written records, and ensure staff check in.
“It is in everyone’s best interests to continue to play their part,” Mr Letchford said.
Mr Cowdrey said wool growers must follow the example of other businesses by taking a few simple steps to protect themselves and their workers:
- Provide well stocked hand-washing stations and sanitiser for workers.
- Ensure all workers and visitors check in with a NSW QR code (or paper record) every day.
- Ensure masks are worn indoors (except when shearing, which is classed as strenuous physical activity).
- Enforce safe social distancing – 1.5m between workers. If that isn’t possible between stands, use every second stand.
- Disinfect and clean down high-touch surfaces and equipment between use.
The AWU said wool growers should also encourage all workers to get vaccinated and do this in paid time.
“Workplace health and safety has never been more important,” Mr Cowdrey said.
“Our shearing organisers are actively supporting our AWU members in the sheds this season to make sure woolgrowers do the right thing.”