OFA survey indicates need for more accessible and affordable PPE, By Steve Brackenridge, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture

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Across Ontario’s agri-food sector, health and safety has always been a main priority in keeping farms, employees and customers safe. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the importance of health and safety was taken to a new level with additional practices and procedures put in place to help control and slow the spread of the coronavirus in an effort to keep businesses up and running.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) understands that farmers need appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to safely run their farm businesses. Ensuring that a steady, reliable supply of PPE is allocated to the agri-food sector is vital to keeping our food supply chain intact.

OFA recently conducted an Agricultural Personal Protective Equipment Survey to collect membership input on how PPE protocols have impacted Ontario agri-businesses. The survey, which was completed by 498 members across the province, was launched to better understand the supply and demand for PPE in the agricultural industry. It also provides OFA with tangible results that can help to support our ability to represent and advocate for farmers as we engage in discussions with government policymakers and industry stakeholders.

The consensus of the survey indicated that farmers are concerned with the increased cost of PPE and the unavailability of certain safety supplies. As a farmer, we regularly experience unforeseeable challenges in our day-to-day work. Having to deal with the stress of tracking down PPE and obtaining the right materials necessary to keep our business open adds another layer of worry to managing our farm.

As a business owner with three employees, I was fortunate enough to receive all the supplies I needed in order to successfully run my retail shop. However, according to OFA’s survey, 16% of farmers are currently unsure if they will be able to keep their farm businesses open due to a lack of accessible PPE. For farms and agri-businesses that are open to the public, adequate PPE is especially crucial in keeping their doors open.

According to respondents, the top three items that farmers experienced shortages of were N95 masks, dust masks and sterile gloves. Due to government guidelines, to meet proper safety protocols, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are mandatory supplies needed to operate businesses. We have a responsibility to provide not only a safe workplace for employees, but a safe environment for customers as well.

Looking ahead to the 2021 growing season, 21% of members still anticipate PPE shortages within the next three months, and 68% have reported unexpected shortages in N95 masks specifically. With mandatory masks required to enter all businesses, this poses a serious threat to productivity and business operation.

Preparing for the future has been a challenge throughout this public health crisis. It’s difficult to foresee when protocols and regulations for PPE are subject to change. More than 50% of farmers who completed the survey stated they do not have an extended supply of PPE on-hand, which leaves them vulnerable to future supply shortages. Only 12% of farmers stated they have enough supply to last their business more than six months.

Collectively, farmers indicated they were unaware of various government programs that could assist them in off-setting the cost of PPE, managing financial strain due to making fundamental changes to their operations to protect the health and safety of their employees or accessing resources to order enough PPE needed to run their businesses safely and effectively.

OFA worked extensively with the Ontario government on outreach and communication related to the Enhanced Agri-food Workplace Protection Program. The intent of the program, which received a $10 million extension in Ontario’s 2021 budget, is to provide financial assistance and help off-set the cost of PPE as well as additional expenses incurred due to COVID-19. OFA’s survey showed that 43% of respondents were unaware this funding was available to them.

Along with the Enhanced Agri-food Workplace Protection Program, the Ontario government also provided a Workplace PPE Supplier Directory where business owners can search for the specific PPE needed for their employees. 67% of farmers from our survey were unaware that this directory was available. One survey participant shared the PPE Supplier Directory was easy to use and a good start to gather the basic knowledge and information needed to equip the workplace.

Additionally, OFA has provided extensive resources through our COVID-19 online resource hub with updated information on rules and regulations, where to obtain PPE, how to find support, and government programs that could help assist farm business owners during these unprecedented times.

OFA encourages anyone struggling with PPE shortages to utilize resources available to them to off-set some of the financial burden, obtain appropriate materials, and keep their farm businesses profitable. Utilizing these resources will help Ontario farmers better adjust to a new normal to keep their farms up and running.